Seventy years later, no one knows where Harry “Bud” Carlsen is.
At least one expert thinks he has a pretty good idea, but a federal agency has dismissed those claims. At this point, the search for the missing World War II veteran from Brookfield — killed in action on Nov. 20, 1943, on Betio Island during the first day of the bloody three-day Battle of Tarawa — is at a standstill.
At a press conference on Nov. 22 commemorating the anniversary of the battle, U.S. Congressman Daniel Lipinski expressed frustration that the missing and unidentified remains recovered from the island gravesite after the war remain in a kind of limbo.
“It’s frustrating to me, and I’m not sure what the answer is here,” said Lipinski, who in 2009 was able to secure funding and called on the U.S. Department of Defense “to recover, identify and return remains of members of the Armed Forces from Tarawa.”
In 2010, a team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) traveled to Tarawa to search for remains and came up empty-handed. Since then, JPAC has been embroiled in internal conflict, resulting in a July report from the Government Accountability Office that spotlighted “longstanding top-level leadership weaknesses and a fragmented organizational structure” as reasons for its failure to be more successful.
Eric Lausten, who is Lipinski’s chief of staff and has been the congressman’s point person in dealing with JPAC, called the agency “a very insular group” engaged in a series of internal turf battles. But, he said, in the aftermath of the GAO’s July report, there’s heat on JPAC to get results.
“It’s a slow ship-turning activity going on with JPAC right now,” Lausten said.
That’s little comfort for Ed Spellman, the son of Harry Carlsen’s niece, Nancy Spellman.
Ed Spellman has taken up the torch for the family in the quest to find Carlsen’s remains and identify them. Nancy Spellman, who died in 2011, provided a DNA sample to JPAC back in 2009, prior to the agency’s trip to Tarawa.
“My goal was to get [Carlsen’s remains identified] by the 70th anniversary,” said Ed Spellman. “We’ve come to this wall now. Ultimately it’s the guy running JPAC, it’s his signature that is going to make this happen.”
It’s not that there are no leads at all. That’s what frustrates Spellman so much.
A former JPAC analyst, a retired police chief named Rick Stone, sent a report to Spellman in October 2012 identifying a set of remains buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific as a “most likely match” for Carlsen.
Those remains, referred to in the document as X-82, are among remains from 102 servicemen killed in action who were formerly buried on Betio Island. Hundreds more are simply unaccounted for, still buried somewhere on Betio Island, which has since become densely populated. Residents there, according to reports, routinely dig up bones.
Using biometric information obtained from studying files maintained at the Cemetery of the Pacific, Stone identified Carlsen and five others as “most likely matches” for X-82.
But JPAC, apparently wants nothing to do with Stone’s conclusions. Stone and JPAC parted company, unhappily, in 2012.
Despite Stone’s conclusion of Carlsen being a “most likely match” for X-82 and despite having a DNA sample from his niece in their possession, JPAC hasn’t moved to find out if there is, in fact, a match.
“It’s something they could do,” Spellman said. “JPAC spends a lot of taxpayer dollars at remote sites all over the world. When you think of that cost compared to the cost of this … They can see the cemetery from their office.”
Guy Tridgell, communications director for Lipinski, said the congressman was informed by JPAC early in 2013 that they were excluding X-82 as being a match for Carlsen, based on dental records.
“They told us there wasn’t sufficient evidence to disinter the remains,” Tridgell said.
Questions directed to JPAC by the Landmark were referred to the U.S. Department of Defense. Attempts to reach that agency were unsuccessful prior to press time.
Which also means Carlsen could still be buried somewhere on Betio Island. Some good news, however, has been made on that front.
In October, the New York Times reported that JPAC’s formerly frigid relationship with private researchers was beginning to thaw, based in part on successes one of those private researchers, Mark Noah, had been having in locating gravesites on the island.
During the summer of 2013, according to the New York Times, Noah had recovered more than 7,000 bones belonging to fallen U.S. Marines. During a joint Noah-JPAC recovery mission in the fall of 2012, archaeologists uncovered the body of Manley F. Winkley, who had been killed on the first day of the battle, just like Carlsen.
Winkley, according to the Times, was found wrapped in his service poncho, below a pigpen. His body was returned to his hometown in Indiana in August. Thousands lined to road to welcome him home.
Spellman, though frustrated, remains hopeful.
“I’m still supporting any effort to bring this closure to the family,” Spellman said. “It’s my torch to carry now.”