It’s been 75 years since anyone last saw Technical Sgt. Harry A. “Bud” Carlsen alive. Quite possibly it was his friend, Sgt. B.W. Robbins.
Members of the 2nd Marine Division’s 2nd Amphibious Tractor Battalion, Carlsen and Robbins were among the first troops to assault the Japanese defenses of Red Beach on the north side of tiny Betio Island in the Tarawa Atoll in the Central Pacific on Nov. 20, 1943.
“He was only a few yards to my left at the time [Carlsen was killed],” Robbins wrote in February 1944 to Anne Miles, a New Zealander with whom Carlsen had become romantically involved during a rest period after the Battle of Guadalcanal.
“And only a few minutes before, he waved to me and smiled.”
Carlsen, 31, who lived in Brookfield until he left to enlist in the Marines shortly after Pearl Harbor, was cut down by Japanese machine gun fire, hit in the head and possibly the right hand and leg.
Three months after the battle, Marine Chaplain Douglas Vernon wrote to Harry’s mother, Amelia, who lived at 8928 Southview Ave., describing her son’s actions that day.
“Technical Sgt. Harry A. Carlsen landed with our first troops,” Vernon wrote. “He climbed out of the tractor in which he had come ashore. While he was rushing a Japanese machine gun emplacement, the enemy fire killed him instantly.”
Mae Yates, Harry’s sister, later wrote repeatedly to the Marines asking after her brother’s personal effects.
“I am asking in the interests of my mother, who is up in years, and who will never be satisfied until she receives some definite information as to the whereabouts of Harry’s personal belongings, as she feels that is all she has left to look forward to,” Yates wrote to the Marine Corps commandant in March 1945.
Two years later, the family received a letter explaining that not only did they have no personal effects, they didn’t know what had happened to Carlsen’s remains.
But, now, the mystery is over.
On June 4, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency confirmed the identification of Carlsen’s remains through DNA testing and dental and skeletal records.
The announcement to Carlsen’s relatives in July capped a decade of trying to finally identify his remains, an effort kick started by Carlsen’s niece, Nancy Spellman.
“To be able to close it just feels good,” said Ed Spellman, Nancy’s son and grandson of Harry Carlsen’s sister, Josephine.
Ed Spellman said the family didn’t talk much about Harry’s death. He knew his great uncle had died at Tarawa, but that’s about all.
“Whenever the subject came up with my grandmother, you saw and felt her pain,” Ed Spellman said.
But Nancy Spellman enjoyed investigating the family genealogy, and the mystery of her missing uncle, whom she remembered in an interview with the Landmark in 2010 as “a John Wayne type. A big hunky guy,” was intriguing.
Nancy and Ed Spellman began really pushing for the identification of unknown remains from Betio Island after the publication of the book “Tarawa’s Gravediggers” by Bill Niven, which painstakingly sought to identify those who were buried, in small and large groups, in more than two dozen burial sites on the island. Harry Carlsen’s name appears in that book.
Prior to her death in 2011 at the age of 77, Nancy Spellman had provided DNA to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. But, progress was painstakingly slow, and Spellman’s son, Ed, took up the cause.
Finally, in 2016, the order was given to exhume the 94 sets of unidentified remains from the Battle of Tarawa that had been moved from Betio Island in 1949 and interred at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.
Since June 2017, the agency through DNA and other analysis has positively identified more than 30 Marines killed on Betio Island whose remains had been unaccounted for.
In 2017, the agency disinterred the remains known as X-82, which had been identified back in 2012 by a former agency analyst as a “most likely match” for Carlsen. It turned out that analyst had been correct.
On July 31, out of the blue, Ed Spellman received a call confirming identification from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
“Once the call came there was no resentment or bitterness,” said Ed Spellman. “It’s overshadowed by the sense of peace and closure. It’s a very satisfying feeling.”
But, the agency also revealed that some of Carlsen’s remains had been left behind, shrouded in a camouflage poncho, and buried in the sand of Betio Island since 1943.
Those remains were unearthed in 2013 by a nonprofit organization called History Flight, which has traveled to Betio Island several times in the past decade, excavating sites that were turned into Marine cemeteries immediately after the three-day battle, which killed more than 1,100 Marines, about 3,600 Japanese troops and 1,100 Korean laborers.
Skeletal remains unearthed in 2013, along with shoe and poncho fragments, were taken to Hawaii for analysis. DNA extracted from the skeletal remains recovered from Betio Island in 2013 matched the X-82 remains in Hawaii since 1949.
On Aug. 16, Hattie Johnson, head of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s Marines Corps’ section, traveled to Ed Spellman’s home in St. Charles to meet with a half dozen of Harry Carlsen’s relatives and present the agency’s findings and to begin arranging for Carlsen to be buried with full military honors at a cemetery of the family’s choosing.
On Aug. 22, Spellman told the Landmark that the family had decided to bury Harry Carlsen at Abraham Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Elwood, which is located about 50 miles southwest of Chicago on the former grounds of the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. Details are pending.
In his February 1944 letter to Carlsen’s girlfriend, Anne Miles, Sgt. Robbins closed by writing, “Keep your chin up, my friend, and one day this whole thing will be over.”
After 75 years, it finally is.
This article has been changed to correct the name of the nonprofit, History Flight, which recovered remains of Harry Carlsen from Betio Island in 2013.