- Associated Press - Monday, June 6, 2016

AMARILLO, Texas (AP) - For years, for decades, the young Marine from Hereford whom his buddies called “Rabbit” was called something else, something that put a silent knot in the stomachs of his family and those he fought with on foreign soil.

The Department of Defense tersely described Elmer Mathies Jr. as “unrecoverable.” Forever lost in a lost world since the morning on the beach of Tarawa on Nov. 20, 1943. Difficult enough to lose a son or brother, even more so never to get him back.

“‘Rabbit’ deserved more, they all do, than to be lost or forgotten or whatever words you want to use,” retired Col. Elwin Hart, 91, of Federal Way, Washington, told the Amarillo Globe-News (https://bit.ly/1t2oYSs).

Seventy-five years ago, Mathies had to get his parents, Hereford accountant Elmer Mathies Sr. and mother Eunice, to sign for him. He was only 17 when he joined the Marines in 1941 just prior to the U.S. entering World War II. At 5-foot-3, his baby face made him look like he was 12.

Mathies, who went by his Marine call name of “Rabbit,” fought with Hart at Guadalcanal. They trained for 10 months in New Zealand for the assault of the Marshall Islands. First stop, the tiny atoll of Tarawa.

They were part of the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Marine Division. Together, with the Army’s 27th Infantry Division, they fought to capture the crucial little island against the well-entrenched Japanese.

Landing boats dropped them hundreds of yards from the shore. Salt water splashed to their chins as they waded to dry land while bullets and mortars were all around. They found cover in a mortar pit on the beach. Mathies was a radio wire man, and Hart was a radio operator.

The landing was hell on earth. A handful of Marines were in the fortified 10 feet by 10 feet mortar pit. Mathies was setting up communications for radio contact to the ships.

He jumped into the pit and then pushed himself up on the edge to peel off his equipment. His sergeant yelled at the young private to get down.

“Simultaneously with that yell, a single shot from a Japanese sniper hit him right in the heart,” Hart said, “He fell right into the pit. I just remember the sergeant saying, ‘No, no, no.’ He was one of his favorites.”

Rabbit’s body would remain with them for nearly three days just a few feet from that protected pit. He was one of 1,200 Marines who would die in the first three days of that chaotic bloody fight.

Indicative of the times, it was not until 34 days later that a Western Union telegram arrived at the Hereford home of Elvin Sr. and Eunice Mathies where daughter Mary Jo and son Thomas also lived.

“THE UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS DEEPLY REGRETS TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON ELMER L. MATHIES. JR…ON ACCOUNT OF EXISTING CONDITIONS, THE BODY IF RECOVERED CAN NOT BE RETURNED AT PRESENT…”

It was Christmas Eve.

Mary Jo, 12, was at a Campfire Girls party, laughing and opening gifts when she looked up and saw her father standing there.

“He just said, ‘Come on, we need to go home,’” she said.

A flag in the window was replaced by a Gold Star. They would wait on Elmer Jr.’s return for his funeral service. They silently waited, and waited. Hopeful, but no word.

“My parents were very strong people,” Mary Jo Hopson, 85, said. “But my mother and dad very seldom spoke of my brother from then on. They never said very much.”

Nearly 1,700 U.S. servicemen and 4,690 Japanese were killed in just three days of fierce fighting on Tarawa. That is more than 88 an hour for 72 straight hours.

Fallen Marines and soldiers were placed in makeshift graves. Not all would make it home.

Rabbit never did. All that remained were just a few black-and-white photographs, including one from Marine boot camp where he looked more like a Boy Scout.

“I know it hurt my parents,” Mary Jo said. “It hurt them more than they let on.”

Eunice Mathies died in 1981, and Elmer Sr. died in 1986. Their other son, Thomas, died as well.

More than 73,000 Americans are still unaccounted for from World War II. Rabbit was one of them.

Mary Jo, daughter Denise Coble and son-in-law Ken, all now in Plano, wrote some letters and made a few calls with long odds that something could be done. Nothing really happened. A few years ago, his sister got word from the Department of Defense that her brother’s remains were “unrecoverable.”

“Once my mother heard that,” said Denise, “she quit trying. She gave up hope,”

About 20 years ago, Mary Jo received a headstone from the Marines for her brother. It marked an empty grave at West Park Cemetery in Hereford on a family plot.

Rabbit, it seemed, was left to heaven and history.

But Hart, a retired Marine, was not content to let it go. It went against the core of every Marine - to leave one of the fallen behind.

“He is the one above all who has been pushing this,” Denise Coble said.

A godsend, a charity known as History Flight, felt the same. For the last 10 years, History Flight has flown more than 100 missions to find, recover and repatriate missing American soldiers.

Hart had written a story a little more than a year ago for the 2nd Marine Division Association’s official publication, “Follow Me.” The title of the article, “Find Rabbit,” was a pointed appeal to bring back the Marine who was killed next to him more than 70 years ago.

“The director of the association was reading the article, and went to his vehicle,” Hart said. “He had Rabbit’s dog tags. He called me and said, ‘He’s been found.’”

History Flight had made a trip to Tarawa in 2015 and recovered the graves of several dozen Americans in yards, trash pits, even pigsties. A group of 33 were found under an old air strip. One appeared to be Mathies.

Officials reached out to Mary Jo last July for a DNA sample. Finally, just a month ago, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency called.

Elmer Mathies Jr., after nearly 73 years, had been found.

Elwin Hart and wife flew from Seattle to Amarillo last week and on to Hereford. He spoke in front of about 400 at the First United Methodist Church for a memorial service a grateful family thought they would never see.

“I didn’t bring him home,” Hart said, “but I wanted to be there when he did get home.”

Dan Eytcheson of Heritage Funeral Home in Hereford had traveled to Oklahoma City to retrieve Mathies‘ remains, which were flown there from Pearl Harbor.

Eythechson arrived back in Hereford late that same afternoon, and when he did, many in Hereford began lining the streets on the edge of town all the way to the funeral home.

Mary Jo thought it would be a solemn private service, but her uncle’s was anything but that.

Navy Capt. Stephen J. Shaw and Methodist church pastor Kevin Bushart officiated. Col. Hart spoke. Those representing local and federal government, including U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry’s office, were there.

The History Flight crew, led by Mark Noah, and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, led by Hattie Johnson, were there to see their work come to a rewarding conclusion. Marines from Combat Logistics Battalion 453 in Lubbock served as body bearers.

Following a procession lined with people and flags, the Marines provided a three-volley salute at West Park Cemetery. They folded the U.S. flag and Hart presented it to the family.

Rabbit had finally came home to rest, not 6,023 miles away on a nondescript South Pacific atoll, but with his parents in familiar soil.

As it should be. The greatest tragedy in war is not the ultimate sacrifice, but in forgetting. Rabbit was not.


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