Bringing home the fallen Marines of Tarawa

TARAWA -- The Republic of Keera-Bass is a nation of 33 islands straddling the equator in the central Pacific Ocean.

One of the islands was the scene of a World War II battle. Now there is a mission to recover the fallen.

In November 1943, 18,000 U.S. Marines stormed the Pacific island of Tarawa. It was so heavily fortified that a Japanese commander boasted it would take a million men a hundred years to take the island. It took the Marines three days.

Jim Morrow was one of those Marines.

"My first emotional moment came when I got over the long pier and I saw bodies floating in the water. That's when the shock hit me."

More than 1,200 Marines died there in just 76 hours.

Dean Ladd never made it to dry land. He was hit by heavy machine gun fire while wading ashore.

AJ Bowden's unit had 31 men. Three survived. He says it was hell.

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Tarawa veterans were recently welcomed back by the people they liberated so long ago.
CBS News

Now in their late 80s and 90s, six Tarawa veterans were recently welcomed back by the people they liberated so long ago, in a battle that cost them many of their friends.

Japanese bunkers, guns and an abandoned U.S. tank dot the shoreline. But they weren't the only things left behind in the fog of war.

Mark Noah is the founder of History Flight, a non-profit charity that recovers the remains of Americans who died in World War II.

"This isn't really the context that people expected to rest eternally. You know, if they were to die in the line of duty for the country," says Noah.

More than 300 Marines are still buried on the island, under what are today yards, trash pits and pigsties.

History Flight recently turned over the remains of at least 40 Marines they found to JPAC, the U.S. agency charged with recovering the remains of America's war dead.

Wendell Perkins waited 70 years for this day.

"You don't leave a Marine behind ... That's what this is about. We're bringing them home," explains Perkins.

Though they all gave some, some gave all. They're here to make sure that sacrifice is never forgotten.

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.

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