DANVILLE, Ill. (Dec. 17, 2019) -- For nearly 76 years, Marine Corps Reserve Private First Class Jack Van Zandt was mourned by his little sister, Lois, who wanted nothing more than to have his remains brought home to Danville, Illinois, to rest beside his family. Van Zandt gave his life in combat during the Battle of Tarawa during World War II and was buried there, but his grave was lost until recently.
On Dec. 17, Van Zandt finally came home. His sister Lois Van Zandt Wright died on Oct. 4 this year, only two days after the family found out that Van Zandt was coming home.
“I’d like to thank all of the Marines who came today and all the veterans,” said Wright’s daughter Nancy Linde of Danville during the chapel service at Sunset Funeral Home in Danville.
About a dozen members of Van Zandt’s family were present at the service.
“It’s a great privilege for me personally to be here today," said Naval Station Great Lakes Command Chaplain Lt. Mark Thompson, who officiated at the chapel service. "This is the second repatriation that I’ve been honored to do. It’s great that we’re here to honor Jack and reflect on his short life and time with the Marines.”
Navy Operational Support Center (NOSC) Great Lakes Chaplain Lt. Dirk Caldwell officiated the service at the graveside, where Marines from Company B, 1st Battalion, 24th Marines, Terre Haute, Indiana, served as pallbearers, provided a 21-gun salute and played “Taps.”
“We were notified five weeks ago,” said Major Mark Edgar from Company B, 1st Battalion, 24th Marines. “I was tasked by the Commandant of the Marine Corps to help.” Five active duty Marines and 11 Marine Reservists, all volunteers, took part in the service and helped transport the remains from Hawaii back to the continental United States.
According to a release by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), “In November 1943, Van Zandt was a member of Company A, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force, which landed against stiff Japanese resistance on the small island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands in an attempt to secure the island. Over several days of intense fighting at Tarawa, approximately 1,000 Marines and Sailors were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded, while the Japanese were virtually annihilated. Van Zandt was killed on the third day of the battle, Nov. 22, 1943. His remains were reportedly buried in East Division Cemetery on Betio Island.”
“In 1946, the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company centralized all of the American remains found on Tarawa at Lone Palm Cemetery for later repatriation; however, almost half of the known casualties were never found. No recovered remains could be associated with Van Zandt, and in October 1949, a Board of Review declared him ‘non-recoverable,’” according to DPAA’s release.
Not long ago, History Flight, Inc., a non-profit based in Fredericksburg, Virginia, discovered Van Zandt’s remains and turned them over to DPAA. “They were in an area known as ‘Row D’ in Cemetery 33,” said History Flight Archaeologist Jordan Snyder, who helped find Van Zandt’s remains. “We found them under the foundation of a house that had blown down in a storm.” Snyder drove 217 miles from St. Louis, Missouri, to Danville to attend Van Zandt’s funeral.
To identify Van Zandt’s remains, scientists from DPAA used dental records and physical evidence, which included Van Zandt’s 1939 class ring from Oakwood High School in Danville.
Van Zandt was only 22 when he died. When he enlisted, he needed his parents’ permission.
A religious man who loved music, Van Zandt was nicknamed “Gunny” by his fellow Marines, who thought he had the imposing voice of a Gunnery Sergeant. He joined the Marine Corps Reserve in Indianapolis, Ind., six months after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The Marines called him to active duty shortly thereafter, and he left a job with Eli Lilly to bring the fight to the Japanese in the Pacific theater of World War II.
Van Zandt fought in the Battle of Guadalcanal, a military campaign that took place between Aug. 7, 1942 and Feb. 9, 1943 on and around the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands north of Australia. The battle, mainly fought by Marines on the ground and the U.S. Navy at sea, was a turning point in the war in the Pacific. After Guadalcanal, the United States and her allies went on the offensive against Imperial Japan.
After Guadalcanal, Van Zandt took extended leave in New Zealand and Australia before returning to combat on Tarawa. He died helping take a half-mile plot of land needed for an airstrip.
“Many of you are familiar with Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8,” said Van Zandt’s niece Linde. “The very last line is ‘a time for war; a time for peace.’ The war is over. His war ended 76 years ago. And Jack Van Zandt has peace.”
Van Zandt’s name is recorded on the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii, along with the others killed or lost in WWII. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.
According to the DPAA, there are 72,641 service members still unaccounted for from World War II with approximately 30,000 assessed as possibly recoverable.