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U.S. Marine Will Be Laid To Rest In NC - 76 Years After He Was Killed In WWII

The remains of a U.S. Marine are back home in North Carolina 76 years after he was killed in the Pacific Theater of World War II.

Betty Bliss, left, and Cameron Cappello, relatives of U.S. Marine Corps Pfc. Burke, stand in front of Burke's casket Oct. 24, 2019, at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Burke died in World War II and is finally being laid to rest in North Carolina.
Credit DASHIELL COLEMAN / WFAE
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WFAE
Betty Bliss, left, and Cameron Cappello, relatives of U.S. Marine John Taylor Burke, stand in front of Burke's casket Oct. 24, 2019, at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Burke died in World War II and is finally being laid to rest in North Carolina.

As Pfc. John Taylor "Jack" Burke arrived Thursday at Charlotte Douglas International Airport from Hawaii, his plane was greeted with a water cannon salute.

Then, about 15 relatives of Burke's watched from the tarmac as his flag-draped casket was lowered from the plane.

Burke is finally back in North Carolina after he was killed in November 1943 at the Battle of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands as American forces made their way toward Japan.

"It seemed almost impossible," Jill Henderson, Burke's niece, said ahead of his final flight.

Henderson came to North Carolina from Colorado to watch her uncle come home.

"There were almost a thousand Marines killed in the Battle of Tarawa in three days, and he had been missing for such a long time," Henderson said.

Burke was identified using DNA submitted by a family member six years ago, along with anthropological evidence and chest radiograph analysis. Henderson was notified on Memorial Day that her uncle – whom she'd never met – had been identified.

Burke was initially buried as an unknown soldier on the small island of Betio.

U.S. Marine Corps Pfc. John Taylor Burke is seen in an undated photo.
Credit CATAWBA FUNERAL HOME
U.S. Marine Corps Pfc. John Taylor Burke is seen in an undated photo.

In 1946, Burke and other fallen Marines there were exhumed and sent to Hawaii. In 1949, his remains were interred at the National Cemetery of the Pacific. In 2017, they were removed for identification.

It was part of an effort through the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, and Henderson said the nonprofit History Flight was also involved. She wants other families in similar situations to know there's hope.

More than 400,000 Americans died in World War II. Today, more than 72,000 are still unaccounted for. 

Burke grew up near Hickory and volunteered for the Marine Corps in August 1942, less than a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was 17.

"I think a lot of young men had that same commitment," Henderson said. "They believed that it was the right thing to do to serve their country."

He was assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 8th Regiment, 2nd Marine Division.

Burke's nephew Tom McNeely lives in Conover and remembers the day he heard his uncle was going to war. He was just a child. McNeely now says he's glad his Uncle Jack is back "on his stomping grounds."

"I'm tickled to death that they found him and I got to be part of the celebration to bring him home," McNeely said at the airport Thursday, after the family was honored by the state Department of Veterans Affairs.

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Credit DASHIELL COLEMAN / WFAE
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WFAE
Charlotte firefighters salute Thursday as a plane carrying the remains of U.S. Marine Corps. Pfc. John Taylor Burke arrives at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Burke was killed in World War II but was only recently identified. His final resting place will be Hickory, near where he grew up.

Burke's casket was carried from the plane by a Marine Corps honor guard and given a police escort to Hickory. He will be reinterred with full military honors at 2 p.m. Saturday at Catawba Memorial Park. The service is open to the public.

In reflecting on the event, Henderson recalled the last few lines of a poem for those who died at Tarawa.

"It says, ‘Rest, warriors, rest against the day of journeying forth, tender hands shall lift thee out to home soil waiting," she said, her voice cracking with emotion. "And that’s what we’re doing this weekend. We’re bringing him home after 76 years."