In 2013 when we last wrote about the efforts of what was then called the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) to identify the unknown remains of war dead recovered from battlefields all over the world, it seemed unlikely that we’d ever know just what happened to Harry “Bud” Carlsen, a Brookfield man who was killed on Nov. 20, 1943 during U.S. Marines’ assault of Betio Island during the Battle of Tarawa.
At the time, JPAC was a mess, seemingly incapable of doing its job, even though experts had solid information pointing to likely matches for remains that JPAC had on its hands.
Even then, there was information pointing to Harry Carlsen as a likely match for the remains known only as X-82, and JPAC had DNA from one of Carlsen’s relatives to compare with those remains. That same year, a private nonprofit had recovered more remains from Betio Island and turned them over to JPAC. It turned out some of those remains also matched X-82.
In 2015, the Department of Defense, fed up with JPAC’s ineffectiveness, killed it.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), which took its place, began aggressively trying to identify the 94 sets of remains recovered from Betio Island in the years following the war, along with the remains of those recovered from other conflicts.
Since mid-2017, more than 30 of the Tarawa unknowns have been identified, along with scores of others from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Also in 2017, DPAA ordered the remains of X-82 exhumed from a grave marked “Unknown” at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. The DNA evidence provided almost a decade ago by Carlsen’s niece, the late Nancy Spellman, proved crucial to the identifying the remains known as X-82 as Carlsen.
While the mystery of Harry Carlsen has been solved, the remains of thousands of those killed while serving in this nation’s wars continue to be either unidentified or missing.
Some will never be recovered. But for the remains that have been recovered, we owe it to the families of the missing to continue the effort to identify them. For those killed in World War II and even Korea, time is running out for those living who may have known a fallen loved one.
Nancy Spellman likely attended, along with other family members, the memorial service held for Harry Carlsen in 1943 at First Congregational Church, just across Maple Avenue from S.E. Gross School in Brookfield, but the fact that his remains were never recovered clearly gnawed at family members, and to learn a few years after the war that the Marine Corps essentially had lost track of Carlsen’s remains must have been crushing.
While his immediate family and relatives who knew Carlsen, like Nancy Spellman, did not live to see Carlsen’s remains identified and buried with honor, another niece who knew Carlsen and others, like Nancy’s son, Ed, will see it. And there’s comfort and closure, finally, in that knowledge.