Piecing together the past
DULUTH — Jay Hagen didn't get too emotional when he talked about his uncle to kids assembled at Congdon Park Elementary School last week. He designed his presentation so he wouldn't.
"It's hard to swallow the emotion because you don't want to be in front of 600 kids becoming a blubbering idiot," Hagen said.
But in more intimate conversations about James Joseph Hubert, the World War II Marine whose remains were buried in Duluth last summer, he shows his feelings.
"The sad part about it is all the other family members around, the ones who actually knew him never got that closure," he said.
After 70 years of not knowing where he died, Hagen didn't think he would ever learn much about him.
"It's not that we ignored his story, it was just already in the books," he said. "My uncle James went to war. My uncle James died in the war. Thus, end of story."
Hubert's sister Mary — Hagen's mother — was only a 1-year-old when he died.
Hagen and his family made the news when History Flight, a nonprofit that dedicates its time to recovering American soldiers lost during war, found Hubert and 34 others in 2015. After they got the confirmation that Hubert's remains had been recovered, he was returned home.
Hagen wasn't a historical researcher when he got the news. At the time, he was a freelance information technology consultant.
But when his uncle's skeleton was discovered on the Pacific atoll of Tarawa, it didn't just bring closure to the man's relatives. It set Hagen on a historical voyage to learn who exactly was the man they found halfway around the world.
So his research began.
"I spent literally weeks, months digging to the bottom of Rubbermaids trying to find all these pictures and photos of him," Hagen said.
When he wasn't combing through stacks of photographs in the possession of other relatives, he was looking into his uncle's background at the St. Louis County Historical Society. He enlisted the help of anyone who offered it, including John Marshall, the captain of the Duluth Honor Guard who was instrumental in getting other contacts.
When it wasn't curiosity pushing his research forward, it was adrenaline.
"The rush of literally and figuratively what we were uncovering was pretty amazing."
Some of the photographs found are of Hubert as a child, including a first-grade class photo from St. Michael's School in 1927. His last visit home was in 1940, before deploying with the U.S. Marines for the Pacific Theater.
The last bit of information written down about Hubert came from a casualty card from 1949 that states his body was not found and listed him as "unrecoverable." He was 22 when he died.
For Hagen, the return of the remains of a World War II veteran was going to be a big deal. After all, he had been missing for the better half of a century. While some of his family had planned on having a small funeral, Hagen had other ideas.
"I kept trying to project to the family that this was going to be a big ceremony," he said, because if it wasn't, "we would be depriving the community, the city and him of this honor that he earned."
But planning that ceremony came with its own barriers.
The family had hoped to bury Hubert's remains in the summer. But because he was brought home in September 2016, they chose to wait until 2017. Having that much time meant family could plan to travel. It also meant not having the funeral during the 2016 election, something he and his mother agreed to avoid.
"I swear if we had picked a date in mid-October of that year, I wouldn't have been surprised if Hillary or Trump had come to it, because of the magnitude of it," he said. "We didn't want him used as a political pawn."
So they waited until July, when Hubert was laid to rest at Soldier's Rest at the Calvary Cemetery in Duluth.
What started as a side project for Hagen has turned into a part-time job for the Duluth native. Now the program assistant for the Veterans Memorial Hall, he spends some of his time connecting family members with lost loved ones.
In the few months he's spent with the Veterans Memorial Hall, he's already helped six people.
"It's rewarding work," he said. "If I can close stories for other people, it's like a dream job for me to be looking for other people's lost loved ones."