For almost 73 years, the final resting place of Blue Island resident Charles Oetjen seemed like it would be in Tarawa, a small island in the Pacific Ocean that was the site of a bloody World War II battle in 1943.
Oetjen, an 18-year-old Marine, died in that battle, alongside thousands of other American soldiers. With the war requiring so many other duties, the fallen were buried in a mass grave, where they remained for seven decades.
But at long last, Oetjen has come home.
With the help of History Flight, a non-profit Florida-based organization that seeks to return American soldiers buried overseas, Oetjen’s body was discovered about two years ago.
His family was contacted, and on July 29, in a military funeral procession that drew dozens of residents lining Blue Island streets, his remains were brought to Krueger Funeral Home, 13050 Greenwood Ave., in Blue Island.
On July 30, a private burial was held in First Evangelical Lutheran Cemetery in Alsip.
“This whole day is overwhelming,” second cousin Margaret Oetjen said on July 29. “We weren’t expecting all of this, that’s for sure, once we came down the street here.”
According to officials, Charles Oetjen was a senior at Blue Island Community High School, now Eisenhower High School, when he left school in 1943 and joined the Marines. His unit was sent to fight in the Pacific, where they were part of the Battle of Tarawa, about 2,000 miles southwest of Hawaii, from Nov. 20-23, 1943. About 18,000 Marines battled 4,500 Japanese soldiers, with both sides suffering major losses.
Reports are still unclear as to how and where Oetjen was killed. Some reports suggest he never made it ashore; Tarawa, located in the Gilbert Islands, was surrounded by coral reef, making it difficult for watercraft to land and requiring soldiers to wade hundreds of yards inward.
Margaret Oetjen and her brother, Ken Oetjen, weren’t alive when Charles was killed. Growing up, they said, his death was hardly talked about because it caused so much pain.
However, in June of last year, Ken Oejten received a phone call from History Flight asking if he is Charles’ cousin. Ken was stunned to find out his relative had been located—at first, he thought it was a prank call.
“That’s all it boiled down to because you hear so many scams,” Ken said. “We did hear stories about us losing a cousin during World War II, and he never made it out of the lagoon. That was the end of story that I recall, and I don’t remember anything else.”
Through local resources, they found out much more. Margaret Oetjen, who lives in South Holland, works at Eisenhower, so she began digging through archives.
The family also worked with the Blue Island Historical Society to find more information.
“She was privy to all this information,” Ken said. “So I got the ball rolling; and she took it further, and she scored the touchdown.”
In recent months, tributes to Charles have poured in: on Memorial Day, the American Legion hosted a service in his honor him at a Blue Island park.
On July 29, the city came out in full force again. Local fire and police departments gathered outside the funeral home and nearby police department, and a huge American flag was hung from the top of a fire truck ladder over Greenwood Avenue. Some attendees held small American flags.
Around 11 a.m., the Patriot Guard, a nationwide motorcycle organization that attends the funerals of U.S. military personnel, led the procession into the funeral home, where Marines carried Charles’ casket inside.
The support, the Oetjen Family said, began at O’Hare International Airport, where Charles’ body arrived that morning.
“It was the Patriot Guard that got me first at the airport,” Ken said. “There must have been … maybe 35 bikes there, all lined up with American flags. … It was like a parade.”
Even more than 70 years later, Charles’ death still brings out emotions, his family said. According to Ken, closer relatives declined to come to the July 29 procession.
Charles’ death, he said, lingers over the family.
“It will cast a big shadow on family reunions,” Ken said. “I just think it was something left quiet. Nobody wanted to stir up old wounds.”
However, the family is grateful it has some sort of closure, and they hope relatives of other soldiers who never came home find the same.
History Flight officials, they said, has been tremendous.
“They’ve done a wonderful job,” Margaret said. “They’ve kept in contact with us. They are trying to repatriate all of the soldiers—as many as they can.
“So we say to others who may be missing loved ones: you never know when that phone call might come.”
For more information, visit historyflight.com.
The Oetjen Family also encouraged those who believe they lost a loved on Tarawa to visit the Tarawa MIA Families page on Facebook.