Updated: November 30, 2018 04:43 PM
DULUTH, Minn. - Carefully labeled plastic bags fill a small cardboard box. "This is canteen components," says Jay Hagen. Another bag the military has carefully labeled with a black marker. "First aid kit," he says. Each bag has the gritty feel of sand. "This is my favorite--a possible compass," says the nephew of Marine Sergeant James Joseph Hubert. An uncle he never met. "This particular one is components of his right boot and left boot."
His mother Mary, the sister of Sgt. Hubert, says looking at her brother's buried artifacts was too much. "I started looking and I took out the first couple bags, and I just had to put it away," she said. A corroded canteen, a piece of compass, pieces of a left and right boot. They are the last items her Marine Corps. brother had with him--when he died. The location of his grave and his remains have been unknown for over 70 years. But the search is now over, and Jim Hubert is coming home to Duluth.
His final belongings are the closest that Mary Hagen, and her son, Jay, have ever been to her brother Jim. He was almost 20 years older, and with World War II approaching, he had already joined the Marine Corps. by the time she was born. With so much time and distance separating the brother and sister, Mary says she has tried to piece some things together about the big brother who went off to war. What does she know today? "Very little, very little," she says with a smile.
In between the siblings was their sister Elizabeth, just four years younger than Jim. But, Mary, 76, doesn't recall her sister Liz filling in many details about him. Did he like to run or climb trees? "I don't remember my sister telling me any of that," she said. "Did he play baseball? What did he do as a kid?"
However, Mary says Jim was always on their minds, and they were always looking through pictures. They do know that Jim was born in Duluth in 1921 and attended St. Michael's school in Lakeside. Their family then moved to the west side of town and he went to Denfeld. For awhile he worked at Northern Cold Storage along with this father. He joined the Naval Reserve, then the Marines. Then came Pearl Harbor, he re-enlisted, and it was off to the South Pacific.
Hubert fought in Guadalcanal and prepared for what would be known as the D-Day of the Pacific, the Battle of Tarawa. It included a tiny island airfield needed by the U.S., but held by the Japanese. Japan had been fortifying the island for more than a year, and the U.S. Marines' landing was a nightmare.
"I envision it, all I have to do is play [Saving] Private Ryan and horrors that they went through," says nephew Jay Hagen. The battle lasted three days, and over one thousand marines would die. Hagen said, "They got caught in the low tide in coral reefs, and it was a blood bath."
When the fighting ended, it was a different kind of agony, as the men had to deal with the bodies of the fallen.
"Because they had no logistical stream behind them, the Marines has to bury their own," said Hagen.
Military records indicate that across Tarawa, hundreds and hundreds of Marines were buried in dozens of Division cemeteries. Years later, after the war, the effort began to recover the bodies and bring them home.
Mary always thought she had a clear image of his gravesite because of a photograph. "I've had this picture with me since I was a little girl. So I assumed it was his burial site on Tarawa. This is his name, date of death," she said as she held the picture.
But in reality, her brother's remains were among the almost 500 Marines whose bodies were never found. Marker's like Jim's were really only a best guess, an approximation of the general area he might have been buried. Mary's mother had always told her that he was buried at the National Memorial Cemetery in Honolulu, known as The Punchbowl. But, when Mary went to Hawaii to look for her brother's grave, she was told that he was not there.
"His name was on this plaque of men who had died on Tarawa, but were missing in action," Mary said. "After the years, you just assume that nothing was going to happen."
But two years ago, something did happen. Back at Tarawa, workers building a parking lot found human remains.
"Miraculously, five had already been pulled out of that," Jay said. "No one thought to dig left or right, so they didn't realize they had hit a mass grave."
It was Cemetery #27, also known as the Lost Cemetery. It included sixteen Unknown Marines, among them, Sgt. James Hubert. But he would not remain unknown for long.
Mary said, "I remember getting a call, and them telling me that they were looking for bodies of World War II veterans."
A patient and determined organization, History Flight, was systematically searching for--and taking samples from--remains.
"A small cut out of the lower leg bone, and that's where they took the DNA sample from," said Jay. The DNA sample was compared to the DNA from Mary's family. "It wasn't just my mother's DNA, but they took mine, and my first cousin's. When they cross-matched--even the dog tag was not enough--this was him."
And now, after almost 74 years after his death, Jim is coming home.
"I did well with my seven-hour briefing with the Marines until she handed me this," Mary said as she leaned forward and pointed to the item on the table in front of her. "Being his dog tag, and it has been in the grave with him."
Mary now knows more about her brother's death than her parents did. Jim survived the first day of the assault, and died the second day, after a gunshot wound to the chest. Mary thinks about how her brother may have died. "I have thought about it, hoping it wasn't too bad. Hoping that it was quick. And that he didn't suffer for any length of time."
Mary can still remember as a child, being home with her mother, when her brother's Purple Heart arrived.
"I didn't understand why she was crying. I didn't understand what a Purple Heart was. I just remember when she opened that up. I don't know if she knew it was coming or whatever, but I just remember her sitting on the floor and crying."
When Mary first learned her brother's remains would be returned, she didn't know what to expect. An urn? A shoebox? But ninety percent of skeletal remains are coming home.
"I was just shocked at how much of his body was still there," she said.
And now the brother she knew for years only through photos, will be very real.
"It's just like I said, bittersweet," Mary said. "I want it to be a happy occasion, but it's sad. I know it's going to be sad. I know when they play Taps, it will probably do me in, but I'll be very, very happy." And she nods as she adds, "He'll be near his mother."
It is not lost on Mary and Jay how fortunate they are, and they are thankful for those who kept searching. "You know, you walk by the flag every day of our lives, the POW-MIA flag," said Jay. "And we forget their missions. And that's their [History Flight's] mission--return--and this is a success story."
As Mary says, it is bittersweet, but she will have her brother home. She realizes other families are waiting, and that her family has received a blessing. When asked if she had any words for those other families, Mary said, "Never give up. Never give up. They just might find him, like it happened to us, after all this time.
Marine Sgt. James Joseph Hubert will be returned for re-interment in the Soldier's Rest section of Duluth's Calvary Cemetery on July 15.
RELATED STORIES: A tribute to honor: Marine Sergeant James Joseph Hubert
Updated: November 30, 2018 04:43 PM
Created: May 28, 2017 10:04 PM
Copyright 2018 WDIO-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved