July 14, 2017 10:20 PM
A full-blown escort leading him out the Twin Cities' airport gates, Sgt. James Joseph Hubert kept getting closer to home.
On this day it didn't matter that it comes almost 74 years after he died in the battle of Tarawa in the Pacific. Where, he was buried was unknown…despite his little sister Mary's efforts to find him.
"I just don't really know how to explain it, except he's back in Minnesota, where he started," Mary Hagen said.
Family and friends waited for the overnight flight from Hawaii, and then accompanied him to Fort Snelling National Cemetery. It was a two-hour pause for others to pay their respects before his final leg north to Duluth.
A military flyover, one plane veering off… alone. It was a powerful and poignant moment during a morning of reflecting on a 22-year-old who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Jim was the big brother Mary never met, born after he went to war. For her sons, Mark and Jay, their uncle Jim was now more than just a young man in old black and white photos.
"Today as the casket is coming off the plane and laying here in repose, what was once a story has come to life," nephew Mark Hagen said.
"It's always a historical book type of thing. Something you would see in pictures," Jay Hagen said. "But when you see the casket come off the plane, it becomes real, very quickly."
Also on hand this day, the man who found James in what is known as Cemetery 27.
"The first unit that we dug we found a Marine. Ended up being Roger K. Nielsen. And right next to him was James Hubert," John Frye, Principal Investigator, Honor Flight said.
Frye has recovered the remains of 40 Marines on Tarawa, but they never become just fragments.
"They had family, loved ones. Some had children. When you find someone's remains in the ground, it's a person, there's no mistaking that," he said.
Mary Hagen says through John, she may be as close to her brother as she can ever be.
"Where his remains were found in that cemetery, and I just wanted to run up and touch him because he had basically touched my brother," she said.
But Mary may have been most touched by hearing that unsuspecting passengers got to hear her brother's story on his flight home.
"The Captain had given a 10 to 15 minute briefing to all the people, and they cheered. It brought me to tears. So emotional," Mary said.
And now, it was time to go. Jim was finally preparing for the last leg of his journey. It's time to head north one last time.
Five hundred other Marines remain missing on Tarawa, and while the family feels blessed, they understand something else.
"At the same time, an awareness that so many are left to be found," Mark said. "The job is only a fraction over at this point."
But for today, at least for James, one Marine was coming home.
The funeral for Sgt. James Hubert will be Saturday morning at 11 a.m. at Soldier's Rest in Calvary Cemetery. It is open to the public.
Updated: July 14, 2017 10:20 PM
Created: July 14, 2017 04:35 PM
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