ALBANY, N.Y. — Growing up in New York City, twins Michael and James Reilly did everything together. After the U.S. entered World War II, they enlisted in the Marines on the same day. When the leathernecks landed at Tarawa, the brothers were in the same assault wave.
Michael survived, but his brother was killed just feet away from his sibling. Jimmy was buried nearby in a grave that was long overlooked. Now, more than 70 years later, Jimmy will be reburied near Michael in a Florida veterans' cemetery.
The Pentagon announced Monday that the remains of Pfc. James P. Reilly had been identified and will be buried next week at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. James Reilly's remains were among those of 36 American servicemen found earlier this year buried on the Pacific island of Betio, part of the Tarawa atoll in the Republic of Kiribati.
The 20-year-old from Queens was among the more than 500 Marines and sailors listed as missing in action after the three-day battle that began Nov. 20, 1943. About 1,000 Marines were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded.
The Reilly brothers were serving in the 8th Regiment of the 2nd Marine Division when they landed on a strip of sand designated Red Beach. According to accounts Michael told older family members, Jimmy was struggling to reach shore when he was mortally wounded by enemy fire. Michael, who had found cover along a pier with scores of other Marines, saw his brother get hit.
After the island was captured, American casualties were buried in several battlefield cemeteries. When the U.S. military conducted recovery operations after the war, Reilly's remains were among the scores that couldn't be recovered.
In June, the Florida-based nonprofit organization History Flight announced it had found the burial site of what were believed to be 36 Marines. The remains were turned over to the military for identification. In early September, the Pentagon notified Michael Reilly's daughter, Maureen Reilly of New Hampton, New York, that her uncle's remains had been identified.
"The first thing that came to my mind was, I wish my dad was alive to know he came home," she told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
The Pentagon said five of the 36 sets of remains returned from Tarawa this past summer have been identified, including those of Marine 1st Lt. Alexander "Sandy" Bonnyman, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1947.
Maureen Riley and her stepsister, Mary Smith, said relatives would recall how the Reilly twins, the oldest of four brothers, were inseparable while growing up. They went through boot camp together at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina after enlisting in the Marine Corps on Nov. 23, 1942.
Nearly a year to the day later, the Reilly brothers were wading ashore at Tarawa. According to his daughters, Michael later told relatives he was within 10 feet of his brother when he died.
Michael Reilly came home from the war and joined the New York Police Department, retiring as a detective. He moved to Florida, where he died in 2005. For his two biological children and two stepchildren, the war and Jimmy's death were subjects never to be brought up around their father.
"He buried it pretty deep. I think it was his way of coping," said Smith, of Ocala, Florida.
On Monday, the twins' birthday, Jimmy Reilly will be buried with full military honors not far from his brother's grave. Jimmy's return comes a decade too late for Michael, but Smith said her father will finally be reunited with his brother.
"I know he's looking down and he's happy," she said.