FIRST OF TWO PARTS
After leaving Lebanon 80 years ago, Capt. Edward Glenn Walker Jr. is coming home for good.
He last set foot in his hometown Dec. 14, 1940, when he took leave for his father’s funeral.
The commanding officer of Easy Company, 2nd Marines, was killed in action Nov. 20, 1943, on Betio Island during the Battle of Tarawa. His remains have been buried three times, twice on that tiny South Pacific island, 6,758 miles from Lebanon.
Seventy-seven years after he sacrificed his life for his country, Walker will be laid to rest July 24 beside his parents in Wilson County Memorial Gardens, in the grave where an unknown Marine mistakenly was interred Oct. 22, 1947.
The case of mistaken identity was authenticated two years ago when a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) examiner tested the remains of an unknown Marine exhumed from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific and confirmed it was Walker.
“Glenn was a company commander, and he and many of his men were almost instantly killed as they went ashore,” said his nephew, Lane Martin, 68, of Lebanon. “He was buried with over a thousand Marines on that island. In 1946 they found my uncle’s dog tags and a body nearby, and it was taken to Hawaii. The Marines brought those remains (not his uncle) back here in 1947 and they were buried.
“At the same time, they had taken my uncle’s body to Hawaii. They had dental records of my uncle and identified him in 2019, and that’s how we got to where it is today. It’s tragic, but the greatest thing is we’re getting it resolved now. My mother was emotional about this until the day she died,” said Martin, whose brother and a cousin were named in honor of Walker.
Correct ID begins to surface
Walker’s closest survivors, among 50 to 60 relatives, are nine cousins: Gayle Martin Bentley, Jim Walker, Mary Ann Walker Bain, Robert Walker, Glenn Martin, Lane Martin, Kathryn Martin Gibson, Bill McDowell and Jimmy Glenn McDowell. All but two live in Lebanon.
Lane was the first to be contacted via a voice message from Hattie Johnson, head of the Repatriation Branch of the Marine Corps Casualty Office, on March 3, 2020.
“On the voicemail I heard her saying my grandmother’s name, Bertha Walker, and the name of Grissim Walker, a cousin of ours. My first impression was ‘Is this some kind of a hoax’? But the very fact she knew those names made me call her back. We began to talk, and she told me that my Uncle Glenn was not here in Lebanon buried next to my grandfather and grandmother but in Hawaii because he had been misidentified,” recalled Lane.
“All my life I had been told I was as tall as he was. I’m 6-foot-4. So, I asked her, ‘How tall is the person you have?’ She said, ‘Seventy-three-and-a-half inches.’ When she said that a kind of a chill ran over me. I thought, ‘My Uncle Glenn — that’s his real body.’
“She went on to say that my Uncle Glenn’s body is currently in Hawaii. He had been misidentified in the aftermath of the Battle of Tarawa and was buried and reburied on Betio Island before his body was taken to Honolulu and there buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in 1947.
“Due to COVID, her team couldn’t travel, and we, as a family, could not. We had issues to work through in regards to the person buried here for over 70 years. It turns out my Uncle Glenn is the first Marine to ever have been misidentified.”
Johnson explained to Martin that when Capt. Walker’s remains are returned to Lebanon a Marine of the same rank will accompany the body. Once it arrives at Nashville International Airport on July 22, there will be a full contingent of honor guards to escort him home.
“The Marine officer will escort him the entire trip and then will escort the person buried here back to Hawaii for identification, and probably some Marine forensics people will be here,” Martin said, noting the exhumation will take place July 23.
Johnson informed Martin that she tracked him down by going to the Find-a-Grave website where she read he had the same full name as his father, who was buried in the same plat as his Uncle Glenn in Memorial Gardens cemetery.
From Lebanon to UT to Harvard
Capt. Walker, the son of Edward Glenn “E.G.” Walker Sr. and Bertha Talley Walker, was born Sept. 27, 1917, in Lebanon. His father served for 25 years as county judge, which in that day was more like county administrator. He had a brother, James, who served in the Army during World War II and two sisters, Kathryn Walker McDowell and Frances Walker Martin.
After graduating from Lebanon High in 1935, Walker spent a year at Cumberland University and then transferred to the University of Tennessee before entering Harvard Law School in 1939 at the same time Joe Kennedy Jr. was a student there. (Kennedy, a brother to President John F. Kennedy, served as a pilot in the U.S. Navy and also was killed in action during World War II.)
A year later, on Oct. 31, 1940, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound, brown-eyed and brown-haired Tennessean volunteered for the Marine Corps and went to Quantico, Va., where he began officer candidate school. Less than two months later, he obtained an emergency furlough so he could attend his father’s funeral in Lebanon on Dec. 15.
From Quantico, he reported to San Diego before shipping out. During the Battle of Guadalcanal on Nov. 11, 1942, Walker was hit in the abdomen by bullet fragments which lodged near his right hip. He spent several months recuperating in a hospital in New Zealand. Due to wounds received under fire, Walker was awarded a Purple Heart.
“He went back to service in early 1943, and that’s when they began to do the island hopping and the Battle of Tarawa,” said Lane Martin, whose father, Lillard, was a B-17 pilot and flew 30 combat missions during World War II.
“In the autumn of 1943, the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet set its sights on Tarawa Atoll. It was their first large-scale amphibious assault of the war. It was a small island less than half the size of New York’s Central Park.
“The planners incorrectly forecasted the tides that day, and their landing craft became stuck on the coral reef. The Marines then had to wade 500 yards of open water with 80 pounds of gear, while under heavy Japanese fire. Glenn and four of his officers made it onto the beach but were almost immediately killed. He was 26 years old. After three days of intense fighting, the American forces would take control of the island. Over 1,100 Marines were killed and over 2,000 were wounded. His body was buried at Tarawa and then in Hawaii. It has been there now over 70 years.”
(Note: Of the nearly 200 members of Easy Company, 165 took part in the invasion, and 62 were killed in action and 55 were wounded. Thirty-two remained on the USS Zeitlin in support roles.)
The start of the mystery
“Here’s where the mixup came,” Lane Martin said. “The Marines killed 5,000 Japanese, and 1,100 Marines were killed. After the battle was over, they left the chaplains and Seabees to bury the dead. You’re talking about the hot tropics, and they buried them as quickly as they could. Apparently in rebuilding the airport they dug up some bodies and moved them and reburied them; not just my uncle but a thousand men. So, you can see how somebody could get lost in the shuffle.
“At the end of the war, March 1946, the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company began recovery of the dead from Tarawa. They only recovered 532 sets of remains, which left 500 unaccounted for. Of the 532, they retrieved a body they thought was my Uncle Glenn. They found his two dog tags but associated them with another person. The record shows they found the dog tags and a dental match. Then they reburied those men in the Lone Pine Cemetery on the island, and in 1947 took 632 of those back to the Schofield Barracks in Hawaii for further analysis.
“Since Capt. Walker’s remains had been identified (incorrectly), they sent a body to Lebanon, and, almost four years after he was killed, my family had a funeral for their Marine and that person was buried next to my grandfather, Edward Glenn Walker Sr. And the correct Glenn Walker Jr.’s body was buried as an unknown in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.”
“Fast forward and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) begins exhuming bodies from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific including my uncle, and they assign them numbers [Capt. Walker was labeled ‘Tarawa Unknown X-198’]. He was disinterred in 2017, and they began doing identifications and were able to associate the remains with Capt. Walker in 2018. They confirmed this and ID-ed him in 2019. That’s when they began to try and find us,” said Martin.
“Long before the phone call last year, the story of his character, service and tragic death have been an integral part of our family history. My mother loved and admired him deeply and was only a teenager when he died.”
Walker received a second Purple Heart, posthumously. Because he was killed in action this medal bears a gold star for making the ultimate sacrifice.
Walker’s family plans to hold a private reception at 2 p.m. July 24 at Fairview Baptist Church in Lebanon, and the funeral service, open to the public, follows at 3 p.m., with a graveside service to take place with military funeral honors at approximately 4:30 p.m. at Wilson County Memorial Gardens.
Among those who are scheduled to speak at the funeral are Martin; his sister, Kathryn Martin Gibson; Dr. Robert Bone and Jim McDowell. Martin’s son-in-law, Brandt Wagner, will officiate.