73 years after death in WWII, warrior's remains laid to rest in North Dakota
LAKOTA, N.D.—Warren Nelson was memorialized Saturday at Lakota Lutheran Church, where he was baptized in 94 years ago, for the second time.
This time, 73 years after the first, his body was put to rest, too.
Nelson was killed in action by sniper fire on Nov. 20, 1943, running supplies to his fellow U.S. Marines on the frontlines of the Battle of Tawara on Betio Island, in the Gilbert Islands in the Pacific theater of World War II. He was 20.
The Field Musician First Class attached to Echo Company, Second Battalion, Eighth Marines, Second Marine Division, was among the 1,696 American service members killed in the three days of fighting. All told, nearly 6,400 people were killed on the island in three days. It remains one of the deadliest battles in the history of the United States Marine Corps.
His body was not immediately recovered, and seemed lost forever, until the non-profit organization History Flight discovered a burial site on Betio Island in June 2015 that had remains of 35 Marines. The remains were turned over to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which identified one of the dead as Nelson.
Nelson's first service at Lakota Lutheran, in January 1944, also drew "an unusually large crowd," according to a newspaper clipping at the funeral.
The pews filled up quickly Saturday for Nelson's service, though only two people present could say they'd ever known him. Marilyn Jane Nelson-Baker, his first cousin, was around 9-years-old when Nelson died. Her younger brother Bob Nelson told the Herald she recalled Warren taking her and other family children for ice cream as a child. Bob said he does not remember Warren, but was given Warren's old horn, which is now 117 years old.
Bob Nelson said he met an American Legion member Saturday from Cleveland, N.D., who said he'd known Warren.
The funeral, complete with full military honors from U.S. Marines out of Wahpeton, N.D., and presided over by a U.S. Navy chaplain, brought attendees back in time to remember the sacrifices of the era.
"For the first time, in some ways, it made me think of all those young men who are still over there, waiting to come home," said Chaplain Mike Madsen.
Relatives of Nelson read letters he sent to his parents prior to his death in which he told what he could of his daily life, asked them to send money so he could buy more Lucky Strike cigarettes and told them it was OK for his younger sister Marie to live in Los Angeles for a while as "there's nothing to do in Lakota."
When the service attendees moved from the Lutheran Church to the cemetery, they were greeted by a crowd of about 300 bikers, mostly veterans, who had traveled from all over the state, from Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana and California, among others, as well as Manitoba.
"I'm overwhelmed," said Bob Nelson, who wasn't sure if there'd be more than six people at the service when he drove up from Arkansas.
The bikers lined the road and waved flags as the hearse passed, and stood solemnly as Nelson was finally committed to the ground.
Tom Rainsberry, a Marine veteran who serves as a liaison between Vietnam veterans from the U.S. and Canada, said he tried to tip off others about the funeral. His friend Penney Scott rode down from Winnipeg for the service.
More than 73,000 Americans remain unaccounted for from World War II, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Gov. Doug Burgum ordered the flags in the state be flown at half-staff Saturday in Nelson's honor.