Fourteen days after his 20th birthday, Pfc. George Bernard Murray was killed by a gunshot wound to the chest on a remote island in the Pacific, 4,840 miles away from the small California town where he grew up.
He was buried in a grave next to the other 1,000 Marines and American servicemen killed during four days of fighting in November 1943 over control of the Tarawa Atoll island chain.
Over the next 74 years, their remains would be scattered and record of Murray’s final resting place lost.
Meanwhile, his family back home in Oceano waited for Murray’s body to be returned — a decades-long wait that will finally end Aug. 17.
“It was a big surprise — I didn’t expect it,” said George Winslett, Murray’s closest living relative. “I never really expected him to come home.”
Murray’s remains were successfully identified in June and will be brought back to Oceano thanks largely to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, a federal department that locates missing military personnel from the nation’s conflicts.
A South County boy
Not much is still known about Murray — Winslett, who was born a year after Murray’s death, said Murray’s mother and sisters rarely spoke about him.
“My grandma didn’t talk about him too much after he was gone. My mother and my aunt never said too much about him. It was just sort of left quiet.”
So for Winslett, the uniform-clad young man in a black-and-white portrait hanging on the wall of the Oceano Depot has always been a mystery.
“You have to understand, people didn’t really want to talk about (those who had died in the war),” Winslett said. “It was just easier to not talk about it.”
A “great hunter,” Murray followed his father and other male relatives into the Marines in February 1943, a little more than a year after the United States joined the war.
He would only serve for nine months.
When he was sent to the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll as part of the 2nd Marine Regiment, Murray arrived at one of World War II’s deadliest conflicts for a 76-hour span — some Marine commanders even likened it to battles at Gettysburg because of the loss of life.
The tiny island (it measures less than a square mile) was thought to be a key part of securing a foothold in the Pacific, and launching an attack against the Japanese.
But the 2nd Marine Division on that day met with harsh resistance from the prepared Japanese, and an unlucky decision to ignore warnings that the tide wouldn’t be deep enough to allow landings via Higgins boats left many of the young men on the front lines unprotected as they attempted to storm the beach.
Murray was in the second wave, and according to study done by the Accounting Agency, seems to have made it to the sand.
“Based on PFC Murray’s recorded circumstances of death and the indication that he was initially buried at this location, it seems likely that PFC Murray did make it to the beach before being killed,” read the report.
A local newspaper, which reported the news a month later on Dec. 20, 1943, identified Murray as the first man from the South County to be killed in the war.
For years after Murray’s family received news of his death, they waited for his remains to be sent home. But over time, it became clear that his body had been lost after it was buried on the island.
Based on PFC Murray’s recorded circumstances of death and the indication that he was initially buried at this location, it seems likely that PFC Murray did make it to the beach before being killed.
Defense MIA/POW Accounting Agency report
Bringing him home
Part of the confusion surrounding Murray’s remains stems from the somewhat unorganized construction efforts on the island after the battle.
After four days of fighting, the Allied forces were finally victorious in driving back the Japanese. They buried the almost 1,000 men killed in about 40 graves and cemeteries across the island. By the end of the month, those forces withdrew to other stations, and a series of U.S. Navy Construction Battalion units arrived.
According to the Accounting Agency report, those units modified the organization and layout of the graves and cemeteries, and erected memorial markers listing the names of all those killed, including Murray.
73,119 Number of World War II service men and women who have yet to be accounted for.
Unfortunately, in many of the cemeteries, the grave markers didn’t correspond to the correct people — in fact in many places, the markers weren’t marking a grave at all.
Murray’s grave was among those mismarked, and in 1949 the American Graves Registration Service declared his remains “non-recoverable.”
The family, meanwhile, believed his body had been included with the bodies of hundreds of unidentified marines sent to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, also known as the Punchbowl.
“My grandmother, which was his mother, and my mother and aunt went to Hawaii because they wanted to see the Punchbowl — the cemetery there,” Winslett said “My grandmother always said he was there. She always said that.”
Then in 2010, the family caught a lucky break when Oceano resident Linda Austin, a close friend of the family, saw a special on TV about the Accounting Agency’s efforts to exhume bodies at Tarawa.
She immediately contacted the agency.
“(The contact) said, ‘Oh my God, you have family members. We’re having a meeting next week — we need DNA,’” Austin said. “So I called George (Winslett) and said we gotta go to San Francisco.”
The Accounting Agency conducts digs to recover the lost remains of fallen servicemen and women, and then uses historical records and DNA testing to help identify them. According to the Agency, 73,119 World War II servicemen and women have still not been recovered or accounted for, including 5,647 in California.
In 2010, the group began a massive effort to recover and identify the lost Marines at Tarawa.
“This is an amazing part of our military that we never had any idea that they did this work,” Austin said. “Painstaking work they do.”
For Murray, official identification came on June 6, thanks to a comparison of Winslett’s DNA and the DNA in a recovered tooth.
“We had the hope, hope, hope and we kept saying, if we just keep it on the forefront of our mind, we’ll find him,” Austin said. “Now that he’s home, it kind of completes the whole thing.”
Murray’s remains — including portions of a skull, arm and leg bones — will make their way back to Oceano on Aug. 17, with a first-class Marine escort.
Then on Aug. 18 at 11 a.m., Murray will be laid to rest in a full military ceremony at the Arroyo Grande Cemetery, in a grave next to his mother.
“I think she would have been really excited about it, because she was always looking for him to come home,” Winslett said. “That’s why we want to bury him with her — it’s the closest they can get again.”