COLUMBUS, Ohio — All she knows is a few stories — stories that reach back more than seven decades.
They are stories of the hijinks of Harold V. Thomas and Robert Thomas when they played as kids in their family’s neighborhood on Columbus’ South Side a lifetime ago. Stories like how they thought it was funny to wade into the Scioto River wearing their new leather shoes “just to christen them.” Stories of how both men joined the Marines, how both went off to war, how only one came home.
“It just wasn’t something my dad would ever talk about much,” Carole Thomas-Corne said of her father, Robert. “I just knew he spoke of my Uncle Bud so fondly.”
Both men enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, and both fought in the Pacific Theater in World War II. And both were among some 18,000 Marines who stormed the small, heavily fortified island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands in November 1943 to seize it from the Japanese. Robert was wounded and earned a Purple Heart; Bud was killed in action.
Thomas-Corne, who lives on the Northeast Side, said the story that was passed down was that the man she only ever heard called “Uncle Bud” had been buried at sea. Now, she thinks that was probably made up to, in some small way, comfort Bud’s grieving mother. The not knowing may have otherwise proven too much.
“They say she was never the same after he died,” Thomas-Corne, 69, recalled of her grandmother.
Now, after 75 years of questions, the Thomas family finally has some answers. Remains that have been interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific were identified last year as those of Marine Pfc. Harold V. “Bud” Thomas, who will be buried on Monday with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. As many as 20 relatives, including some nieces and nephews who still live in Columbus, will attend.
“It is just absolutely amazing,” Thomas-Corne said. “This means everything to our family.”
The Battle of Tarawa was among the war’s bloodiest. The history books say a low tide kept the U.S. boats from making landfall, and the arriving Marines were forced to wade ashore under heavy fire. The mission was a success, as the Japanese on the island were defeated, but the price was heavy: Almost 1,000 U.S. Marines and 30 Navy sailors were killed, and some 2,000 U.S. troops were wounded.
In 2016, the Marine Corps Times reported that 550 sets of remains were still unidentified, including some that were still on the atoll. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which is charged with recovery and identification of America’s war dead, has a special project to identify remains from the battle, said Chuck Prichard, the agency’s director of public affairs. It has since 2016 identified 106 sets of remains, leaving 444 as of two weeks ago.
Records show that Bud Thomas enlisted in the Marines on Aug. 7, 1942. He fought with Company F, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment of the 2nd Marine Division. The Battle of Tarawa began on Nov. 20, 1943, and lasted for three days. He was killed on the first day of fighting.
A story in The Dispatch on Wednesday, Dec. 29, 1943, noted his death and said his parents had just been notified.
“I think the family just never knew too much more after that,” Thomas-Corne said.
Harry Thomas Jr., a nephew of both Bud and Robert Thomas, had always taken more than a passing interest in his late uncle’s story. He once had reached out to the Marines looking for answers.
“I wanted a point of contact, a source, where I could determine something of the battle and learn more about what happened,” said the 77-year-old who grew up in Columbus and graduated from South High School in 1958. He lives near Atlanta now.
In mid-2016, some of the Thomas family was gathered at the home of Dorothy Thomas Hartley, Robert and Bud’s sister, after her death. Harry was among them. He had heard about advancing DNA testing that was increasingly helping to attach names to previously unidentified remains so, on a whim, he asked Dorothy’s son if he could have her hairbrush.
That kick-started a chain of events that led to Harry and another cousin submitting DNA samples to the government. Not long after, they were told that their uncle’s remains had been positively identified.
Speaking of it even now chokes up Harry.
“We deal with this now with both thanks and respect,” he said. “Our family would talk about Uncle Bud with only love and reverence. Now, we can gather to show that to him in force.”