Nancy Spellman was 8 years old the last time she saw her uncle, Harry “Bud” Carlsen. In his late twenties and recently divorced, Harry was heading off to California to begin his life anew. He was an ace auto mechanic, Spellman remembered, a big man, and she looked up to him.
“To me, he was a John Wayne type,” Spellman said, “a big, hunky guy.”
No one at all has seen Bud since Nov. 20, 1943. That was the day he died, shot through the head and abdomen, on Betio Island, a Japanese stronghold in the Tarawa Atoll in the Central Pacific. A member of the 2nd Amphibious Tractor Battalion of the 2nd Marine Division, Carlsen was in the first assault wave to hit the beaches on the north side of Betio Island at about 9:30 a.m.
Technical Sgt. Harry Arnold Carlsen was one of 51 sons of Brookfield to die during World War II. More than 1,000 U.S. service men and more than 4,000 Japanese were killed in the four-day Battle of Tarawa.
Shortly after the war, in 1946 or 1947, Spellman said, the War Department contacted the family and asked if they wanted Bud’s remains repatriated to the United States for burial. The family very much did. But it never happened. In the chaos of battle and its aftermath, bodies were moved from their original burial sites on Betio Island.
When U.S. officials went to recover bodies on Betio after the war, they couldn’t find them all. More than 500 men killed in action during the Battle of Tarawa remain unaccounted for. Bud Carlsen is one of them. His name is engraved on a war memorial called the Tablets of the Missing at The National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.
But there’s a ray of hope for Spellman that her uncle’s remains could be found and that a positive ID might be made.
In early August, an archaeological team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) landed on Betio Island to begin digging for remains in what are believed to be six burial sites on the island.
Spellman, an Arlington Heights resident, has been following the team’s progress. Though her uncle died 67 years ago, she remains intensely interested in what happened to him.
“It’s something I can remember,” Spellman said. “They asked us, ‘Do you want the body back?’ and we said, ‘Yes.’ We were so disappointed there wasn’t any remains.”
The JPAC mission to the Tarawa battlefield has its roots in private ventures in 2008, one a documentary film featuring a Tarawa veteran returning to the battlefield and the other a history buff who raised money to do an aerial survey of the island using ground-penetrating radar to pinpoint possible burial sites.
The film Return to Tarawa, followed Navy veteran Leon Cooper, a landing craft skipper, who returned to Betio Island after 65 years only to find the beach where so many Marines, including Carlsen, died, littered with garbage.
Meanwhile, Florida resident Mark Noah, according to an Associated Press report published in 2008, sold rides on vintage military airplanes at air shows to raise the $90,000 he needed to do his aerial reconnaissance of the island. Noah’s mission reportedly found the gravesites of nearly 140 people.
Those efforts resulted in a greater interest in finding those hundreds who were killed and remained on Betio Island.
In Chicago Alderman Jim Balcer, who had sponsored a resolution in the Chicago City Council calling on President Barack Obama to recover and repatriate the remains of soldiers, sailors and Marines buried on Betio, began lobbying Congressman Daniel Lipinski in the spring of 2009.
Harry “Bud” Carlsen’s U.S. Marines casualty card, which includes information about his death and subsequent burial and reburials on Betio Island. Eventually, officials lost track of the remains of Carlsen and hundreds of others.
In June 2009, Lipinski succeeded in attaching an amendment to a defense authorization bill, calling on the Department of Defense “to recover, identify, and return remains of members of the Armed Forces from Tarawa.”
Lipinski said he knew that singling out Tarawa for attention might be construed as snubbing the families of missing servicemen from other wars or theaters of operation.
“My argument was that we have some idea where to find these men, and with development going on there, it’s likely to take away further opportunities.”
Satellite images of the island show that Betio is now densely developed, particularly near the landing beaches. There’s no evidence of the once-vital airfield that made Betio a prime target for U.S. military planners. In addition to the several hundred U.S servicemen buried on the island, some 4,600 Japanese soldiers were killed in the battle and were buried there.
When 31-year-old Bud Carlsen came ashore on Nov. 20, 1943, the island had been turned into what the Japanese considered an impregnable fortress, bristling with men, concrete emplacements, artillery pieces, anti-aircraft weapons and machines gun nests.
The Japanese occupied the island nearly two years earlier, landing there on Dec. 9, 1941, two days after they had attacked Pearl Harbor.
At that time Bud Carlsen was in California, leaving behind his hometown of Brookfield for good. He was born and grew up in an old frame house, still standing on a corner lot, at 8928 Southview Ave.
The house was built in the late 19th century by his father, James Carlsen. According to Spellman, James Carlsen was a Danish immigrant. He was a carpenter who worked aboard sailing ships. James and his wife, Amelia, settled in Brookfield and raised seven children. Spellman said Bud Carlsen, born in the family home on Jan. 4, 1912, was either the youngest or second youngest in the family. Spellman’s mother, Josephine, had been born in that Brookfield home in 1901.
While Spellman does not have a detailed record of Bud’s service in the Marines, it’s likely that Carlsen saw action on Guadalcanal in 1942. He enlisted in the Marines on Dec. 22, 1941, in Los Angeles, and trained as a member of the 2nd Amphibious Tractor Battalion, 2nd Marine Division in San Diego. The 2nd Battalion was part of a regiment sent to fight at Guadalcanal.
Spellman said Carlsen contracted malaria in the Pacific, and she recalled a letter in which he wrote that, still battling malaria as the Tarawa invasion approached, “he felt certain he was not going to come out of this one. He knew the Japs were not going to be surprised a second time.”
Carlsen’s battalion was selected to be the assault wave on Betio Island because of its combat experience at Guadalcanal.
A copy of Carlsen’s Marine casualty card, provided by Spellman, indicates that he died of gunshot wounds to the head and abdomen on the first day of the Battle of Tarawa. The family received the telegram from the War Department announcing Carlsen’s death in early December, Spellman said, hand delivered by Ma Feely, whose own son, Edward, was killed in World War I.
“We were very much affected that Christmas,” Spellman remembered.
Carlsen’s casualty card also indicates that his body was moved around Betio Island several times between his death in November 1943 and November 1944. Eventually, according to the card, Carlsen’s body was “determined non-recoverable.”
In an e-mail to Spellman in August, Mark Noah, the airman who did the aerial survey of the island in 2008, stated that research he did indicates that Carlsen’s remains may have been moved to the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu and buried with other unknown servicemen. But it’s impossible to say for sure.
For his part, Lipinski said that he was surprised how quickly the JPAC archaeological team moved to investigate possible burial sites on Betio Island.
“I was very happy to see it moving so quickly,” Lipinski said. “It’s always good for our nation and veterans and current servicemen and women to see that we never do forget about those who have served our country. It shows how much we appreciate what they’ve given to our country.”