Second of two parts
Lebanon’s Glenn Walker was killed in action in the Battle of Tarawa on Nov. 20, 1943. Due to a misidentification, another Marine’s remains were shipped here 73 years ago and buried beneath the tombstone that bears Walker’s name.
His family was notified of the mix-up last year; thus, Walker’s remains are scheduled to be returned from Hawaii to Lebanon on July 22. A memorial service will be held at Fairview Baptist Church followed by a graveside service with military funeral honors at Wilson County Memorial Gardens on July 24.
Dr. Robert Bone, a second cousin to Walker, is one of a few people alive who would have known the Marine. His father, Sam Bone, on the day before Christmas 1943, carried that fateful Western Union telegram reporting his death to Walker’s mother. Bone remembers going to the Walker house as a boy of 11 and observing the closed coffin in the front room.
“They didn’t open the casket when the body was brought back,” recalled Bone. “Mrs. Walker, my great-aunt, was there. I remember that she was crying. What was so unusual is that her side of the family, the Talleys, was very stoic and never cried. I was not used to seeing her crying. I remember going in that room with my mother and father, and she was sitting there wearing black. She was the kind of person who took the facts as they were and dealt with them with no emotion whatsoever, and this time she was upset.
“Before that, when I was a little boy, we went on Sunday nights to my grandmother’s house, and she served dinner for all the family. My earliest remembrance of Glenn was seeing him standing by the well house in the back yard. He must have been 20 or 21. He was very tall, and I remember he wore a white shirt and dark pants. Glenn was the apple of the eye of the whole family. Even then it was thought he was headed for great things, and he wanted to join the Marine Corps. We thought he had done it all, and his life was snuffed out.
“After he died his name was carved in the white stone wall in Harvard Chapel inside Harvard Memorial Church in Cambridge, Mass., which commemorates those students and faculty members who died in World War II,” said Bone.
Among dozens of letters and other correspondence connected to his uncle’s military service, Lane Martin recently ran across a letter that Bill Mesner, the only surviving officer in Company E, penned to Martin’s grandmother on May 14, 1944, in response to a letter she wrote him inquiring about how her son had died.
About Capt. Walker, Mesner noted: “He was in the initial landing and after hitting the beach and moving inland a short distance, he returned to the landing craft to issue instructions to the driver. It is believed that he was hit at this time but no one is sure. In the confusion of combat — fighting was very heavy at this time — all trace seems to have been lost from that moment. Glenn was some distance down on the beach from where I landed so I saw him last aboard ship when we wished each other luck. For weeks after the action, I tried in vain to get some eyewitness story but to no avail. After receiving your letter, I tried once more. There was nothing new — still nothing definite. Mrs. Walker, I sincerely hope that sometime in the future some yet unknown bit of information will bring forth more news.
Jimmy Glenn McDowell, 78, considers his uncle “a true American hero.”
“My mother (Kathryn Martin McDowell) was so proud of him she named me, her first son, after him. I was born a month before he got killed. I always looked up to his memory. Everybody did. He had a bright future, but he laid it all on the line for his country.”
McDowell said he was not surprised that his uncle’s body was accidentally misidentified.
“The Japanese killed 1,100 Marines. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The Marines are great out there. They honor their dead and don’t leave anybody behind. He’s been out there in an awful good place, ‘the Punchbowl.’ So, he’s been close to his buddies the whole time.
“All these years, my grandmother and grandfather had another Marine buried between them. Now, he’s coming home. We’re going to honor his memory again, and it will bring us all closer,” said McDowell.
Lane Martin’s mother, Frances Walker Martin, wrote a short memoir dedicated to Glenn years ago. Of course, she never knew the remains of the Marine in his marked grave were not those of her brother.
In the essay she wrote, “He was tall and handsome with light brown, curly hair. He was the kind who sent you Blue Grass perfume from Harvard, and later, after he joined the Marines and was home on leave, took you dancing at Cedar Forest. Even if he hadn’t been my brother, I would have been crazy about him.
“The year I was a senior in high school, 1941, he graduated from officer candidate school at Quantico, Virginia, and we drove up there to see the graduation. It was the first, but not last time I saw tears in Mother’s eyes. Later we drove back to Washington and stayed at the Mayflower Hotel. He took us out on the town. It was all very exciting to an 18-year-old girl.
“Soon the excitement turned to dread as Lt. Edward Glenn Walker left from San Diego for the South Pacific. The news was ominous. We knew he was in the thickest of the island-hopping that the Marines were involved in. The telegram came. ‘Lt. Walker has been wounded on Guadalcanal.’ There was no other word until we heard from Glenn in New Zealand, where the wounded had all been evacuated. He said he was well and anxious to get back to the invasion. While he was in New Zealand, he was made a captain and was a company commander. He was so proud of all his men.
“We were notified of Glenn’s death the day before Christmas 1943. Everyone has heard of Iwo Jima but hardly anyone now knows about Tarawa. We will never forget it. One of the survivors came to Lebanon to talk to Mother about the battle, but he was unable to come out here. It was still too awful to talk about.
“Glenn was buried overseas, but in 1947, we had his body moved to the family cemetery in Lebanon. Somehow it comforted us. We all remembered the last letter from him in which he said how proud he was of the Marines and his company, and that he was glad to be a part of the fight for freedom.”
Sacrifice of gold star families
Walker’s nephew, Bill McDowell, recalls that one of his more vivid childhood memories centers on an incident that took place at his Aunt Frances’ house, the same house where Walker grew up.
“My grandmother and Aunt Frances and her family lived together in a big antebellum house. My mother and my aunt were real close. We visited quite often. In one room there were pictures and medals on the walls. One wall held Uncle Glenn’s pictures and medals and the other held those of my aunt’s husband, Uncle Lillard, as he was a B-17 pilot,” said Bill.
“One Christmas when I was about 10, old enough to understand what a Purple Heart meant, I had been asking questions about Uncle Glenn. The whole family went into the formal dining room and everybody took a seat. I had Uncle Glenn on my mind, and I said, ‘Where did Uncle Glenn sit?’ and my Aunt Frances abruptly jumped up and ran out of the room crying, and my mother went running after her to console her.
“Later I realized how painful that was. He was killed seven years before I was born. This was 17 years later, yet how great their pain still was. They missed him, especially at Christmas. That always brought home to me the great price all those gold star families paid. In the homes of every one of those boys that were killed, it was the same thing — a tremendous sacrifice.”
Martin recounted one more anecdote that he heard at a family reunion from a cousin, Ralph Shepherd, in the 1980s.
“Ralph was a gunner on a B-25 bomber. It was one of the smaller bombers used in WWII. His plane landed on Tarawa in 1944 to refuel,” said Martin. “At the time he did not know my uncle had been killed. Being such a small plane, he got out to walk and stretch. Unknowingly, he walked straight to the grave marked with my uncle’s name.”
Capt. Walker’s funeral was officiated by Leonard Jackson, and the remains of the unknown Marine were laid to rest at three o’clock Wednesday, Oct. 22, 1947, in Wilson County Memorial Gardens. Ligon and Bobo Funeral Home directed the funeral. They still have the records of the service. Lane has the registry with the names of those who attended the funeral. Among other mementos, he also has his Uncle Glenn’s faded Lebanon High football jersey.
Remains confirmed in 2019
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) is a Department of Defense agency whose mission is to recover United States military personnel around the world. DPAA was able to pinpoint Walker’s identity after the remains of unknown Tarawa Marine X-198 were exhumed from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in February 2017. The body belonged to a tall man who had a slight overbite and a distinctive pattern of gold and silver fillings. His sole personal effect was a rusted fountain pen.
Researchers found a high number of common factors between X-198 and Walker, and dental records verified that Walker and X-198 were one and the same.
On March 12, 2019, the DPAA Medical Examiner determined there had been a misidentification, and Walker’s identification was officially confirmed March 21, 2019. Currently his remains are at the DPAA Hickam Laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. The remains of the man in Walker’s grave have yet to be identified.
Martin shared that Hattie Johnson with the Marine Corps Casualty Office “is very confident they will be able to ID him. What they think is in this coffin in Lebanon is just a jawbone. We have been taking care of the man for the last 70 years. He deserves as much honor as my Uncle Glenn. He’s sort of the unknown soldier right now.”
Walker mailed a letter to his mother, postmarked midnight, Oct. 16, 1943, about a party. In the letter he wrote, “I am doing fine in all respects; I am healthy and happy and doing my job well. I am sure of this, and I couldn’t feel right if I was not. …
“I have also been playing just as hard. My dinner party was successful, although complicated. You see my former girlfriend, the nurse, came in unexpectedly and called me up. Being in love with Betty, I could not break the date, yet I felt I should ask Marie, so I had both of them there. I have often wondered what would happen in such a case. Now I know. I shan’t try it again.”
About his uncle’s correspondences, Martin noted, “The letters are almost a contrast to the pictures: pictures — a soldier ready for battle; letters — a 26-year-old-boy having the time of his life writing to his mother about it. I am sure she received them after he had died. The last letter I have is dated Nov. 11. He is on board the ship headed to Tarawa, nine days before he is killed.”
Particularly poignant was one sentence Glenn Walker penned in a letter to his mother on April 1, 1942: “If my next 25 years are as happy as the first, I won’t complain.”