HELENA — A core part of the U.S. military is a commitment, “no one gets left behind.” But the realities of war can complicate that promise. Three Montana veterans recently helped a fallen marine come home, 80 years after his death.
“We always try to bring those people home, whenever there’s a chance we will. That’s what we do,” said Montana Veterans of Foreign Wars volunteer Tim Sowa.
Sowa joined the Marine Corps in 1971 and did a three-year tour as a generator mechanic in places like Okinawa and Thailand. He then served in the Marine Corps Reserve for 10 years. Following that, he served in the Montana Army National Guard for 27 years before retiring in 2011.
He recently returned from Kiribati where he participated in the return of the remains of a Marine who died in the Battle of Tarawa. He was joined by Fred Hamilton and Mike Pryor also with Montana VFW.
The remnants of Japanese and American forces still stand in Tarawa Atoll more than a half-century since the end of World War II.
The Battle of Tarawa was the first American Offensive in the Central Pacific region, with the intent of capturing Japanese-held territory within the Gilbert Islands.
It was also the first time U.S. forces faced serious Japanese opposition to an amphibious landing.
On November 20, 35,000 troops from the U.S. 2nd Marine Division and the Army’s 27th Infantry Division assaulted Tarawa. After 76 hours the United States had taken the island, but at a significant cost.
There were 1,020 U.S. personnel reported missing or killed during the Battle of Tarawa. A reported 4,836 Japanese troops died, with only 17 survivors.
The trip to Kiribati was a long time in the making. Sowa says in 2019, Montana VFW Adjutant Tim Peters met with the Department of Accountability about going with History Flight to Kiribati. But the even best-laid plans can be impacted by a worldwide pandemic. When all was said and done the trip was rescheduled for November, 2023.
“It turns out it coincided with the 80th anniversary of the Battle [of Tarawa],” explained Sowa.
The Montana veterans participated in the 80th-anniversary commemoration ceremony alongside members of the Marine Corps, U.S. Ambassador Marie C. Damourand, and the President of Kiribati Taneti Maamau.
Sowa, Hamilton and Pryor also honored the marine as his remains were sent to Hawaii for identification.
“You’re humbled to know that that person gave his life for you,” explained Sowa. "And when we sent him on the plane you’re humbled again, and then when we walked the beaches you’re really humbled to know what they went through. You’re walking there but you don’t have bullets or shells or explosions around you.”
For the last decade, History Flight has been working with the Department of Accountability to identify more than 600 remains of the Marines killed during the battle of Tarawa, but there are still hundreds of Marines who died during the battle who are unaccounted for.
Of the U.S. Forces that died, most were buried in makeshift graveyards on the island with identifying markers. However, the markers were removed so Navy construction could build airfields and other infrastructure. In 1949, the U.S. government informed the families the remaining bodies, hundreds in total, on Tarawa were unrecoverable.
History Flight hasn’t accepted that answer and worked with involved governments to continue to identify and recover remains, even buying out homes so that remains can be recovered.
Sowa says he is thankful for the opportunity and commitment the involved organizations and governments have shown to help identify remains and get them back home.
“Thanks to the State of Montana VFW for letting us go to that and everybody that was contributing to that,” noted Sowa. “Just… It showed their warmth and their devotion to bringing people home, and that’s what matters to us, taking care of our veterans be they alive of dead and bringing them back.”