BILLINGS — Thousands will gather at cemeteries around the country on Veterans Day to honor the American service members who have lost their lives in combat. Almost 300,000 of them died 80 years ago during World War II, including Billings native Jack Earl Hill.
But for the first time, his family will be able to pay their respects in person.
“When you bring their bones back in, it's like, ‘We’ve found you. We got you. You’re on your way home to your family,’" said Jordan Windish. "It is the most incredible thing.”
Windish is an osteo-archeologist for History Flight, a group dedicated to reuniting KIA service members with their loved ones. It’s a rewarding, never-ending job.
"I started looking for how many men and women are missing, and it’s over 81,000 from all conflicts, still today," Windish said of her inspiration for the job.
In November 1943, more than 1,000 Marines were killed in the Battle of Tarawa on a small island named Betio about halfway between Hawaii and Australia.
Twenty-one-year-old Private First Class Jack Earl Hill was one of them. Surviving Marines buried the dead in shallow graves, hoping they would be discovered shortly after the war and sent home to their grieving families. Approximately 33 of them, including Hill, were buried in a trench referred to as Row D. It wouldn’t be found until March 2019.
"There are 41 American cemeteries on this one square mile," Windish said. "The natives have moved back in, so there’s over 60,000 people on this one square mile now, so we're checking under houses, moving houses.
“The Row D group we were looking for was buried under a house with a concrete foundation, which was odd. Most houses are just built right on the sand and coral. That slab protected these men but also inhibited us from finding them for so many years."
Windish’s job had just begun. Her specialty is using the bones for identification. Finally, on June 26, 2020, DNA samples from one of Hill’s cousin’s confirmed a match, putting an end to decades of uncertainty.
"You hear stories of the family members, things like, 'Thank you so much for bringing my brother home,' and it's like, ‘You’re very welcome. It's our pleasure to do it.'"
Jack Earl Hill, the son of Earl and Nellie and a former Custer High School football star, will be laid to rest Thursday in Seattle, Washington, in front of family.