Posted on July 31st, 2016 by:

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On Saturday, a US Marine from Blue Island, Illinois came come from Tarawa. He came to be with his parents  in death after they were separated in life. The Marine was Charles Oetjen, killed in 1943 during the Battle of Tarawa.

Private First Class Oetjen’s remains were discovered by History Flight Inc., an Atlanta-based nonprofit group dedicated to finding and retrieving remains of soldiers buried or missing on foreign soil.


(L-R) Siblings Joann Hoeksema Margaret and Ken Oetjen look over a scrapbook from their second cousin Charles Oetjen (Photo: Chicago Tribune)


Pfc. Charles Oetjen (Photo: Chicago Tribune)

Charles was greeted by relatives who never met him, but came to know him in their brief encounter with his flag draped coffin. “I think he would have been happy with this,” said Ken Oetjen, a second cousin, following the funeral service. Charles Oetjen’s return to the US began with a military salute at O’Hare International Airport and concluded with a 21-gun salute, “Taps” and a motorcycle escort by the Illinois Patriot Guard Riders. More than 100 people attended his funeral including police and JROTC members.

Oetjen’s return became an affair not just for the family, but for the community as well.

Clay Krueger, the fifth generation director of the Krueger Funeral Home handled the funeral arrangements.

“We’re the funeral home that buried Charles’ parents,” Krueger said. “This is a very solemn thing. My father’s older brother died on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He was in the first wave. I remember my father telling me, years later, that the Defense Department contacted his parents and asked if they wanted their son brought back home. They decided to leave him with his fellow soldiers at Normandy. That’s a beautiful, proper cemetery.”


Pfc. Oetjen returns to America (Photo: Chicago Tribune)

Charles Oetjen enlisted in the Marine Corps with his parents’ permission in March 1943, while he was still 17. He trained in San Diego before going to New Zealand and later Tarawa.

Paul Schwimmer, a land surveyor and excavator who works with History Flight, helped find Cemetery 27, the mass grave where Oetjen was found.


Charles Oetjen’s grave on Tarawa (Photo: Chicago Tribune)

“There were 1,600 American dead, as well as 6,000 Japanese and 1,000 Koreans dead. It was so hot and humid that they had to use bulldozers to bury the bodies and they had to work quickly. And then they left.” Schwimmer said. “Marine registration came in when the war was over and made an attempt to find the unmarked graves. They found a number of them but we think there’s still about 500 boys there, so we’re gonna keep at it,” he said.

Today, Tarawa Atoll is extremely poor and many of the areas where US Marines were buried are now developed making the search challenging.

For the Oetjen family, the return of their relative meant the world to them.

Margaret Oetjen said the service was “very emotional but very satisfying. It’s just been an incredible experience. Everything that History Flight and the Department of Defense said would happen, did.”

Ken Oetjen agreed, “He’s with his family, where he belongs.”


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