Princeton man attends funeral for cousin whose remains were finally found, identified
PRINCETON — Bruce Placek never imagined he’d end up at Arlington National Cemetery accepting a flag for a cousin he had never met.
But on Oct. 18, Placek, a Princeton resident, attended the burial of his second cousin, who died in battle in World War II and whose missing remains were recovered more than 70 years later by History Flight.
Marine Cpl. Walter G. Critchley, 24, of Norwich, N.Y., was a member of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, 2nd Marine Division, which landed against stiff Japanese resistance on the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands, in an attempt to secure the island on Nov. 20, 1943.
Critchley died during the first day of battle, which claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Marines and sailors and wounded more than 2,000 others.
Although it was a costly fight, military success in the battle of Tarawa was a huge victory for the U.S. military because the Gilbert Islands provided the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet a platform from which to launch assaults on the Marshall and Caroline Islands to advance their Central Pacific Campaign against Japan.
In the immediate aftermath of the fighting, U.S. service members who died in battle were buried in a number of battlefield cemeteries on the island. In 1946, American forces began conducting remains recovery operations on Betio Island, but Critchley’s remains were not recovered. On Feb. 10, 1949, a military review board declared Critchley’s remains non-recoverable.
Fast-forward to 2015, when the nongovernmental organization, History Flight Inc., discovered a burial site on Betio Island and recovered the remains of what they believed were 35 U.S. Marines who fought during the battle. The remains were turned over to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).
Scientists were able to identify one of the bodies as Critchley’s, using dental records and anthropological analysis.
Just this past spring, Placek was made aware of his second cousin and the story of his missing remains being recovered. He said his wife, Rita, had been doing family research through ancestry.com, and they were notified that Critchley’s remains had been recovered.
Placek’s relative in England, John Shaw, who was also a second cousin to Critchley, was notified through ancestry.com, as well. Together, they determined they were Critchley’s next of kin.
“We were surprised, because it was unknown to us what had happened,” Placek said.
After being made aware of the remarkable discovery, Placek and his family were invited to Critchley’s burial, which took place in Arlington National Cemetery, near Washington, D.C. Critchley was buried with full military honors.
“It wasn’t a solemn occasion. It was a very dignified ceremony and tribute to one of our U.S. Marines. We’re happy he’s home and resting in Arlington Cemetery and that he got the honor and tribute he deserved for his sacrifice to the country,” Placek said.
If it hadn’t been for the diligent work of History Flight, Critchley’s remains might have never been discovered. Placek said the volunteer organization plays a tremendous role in recovering servicemen and bringing them home for loved ones.
Following the burial last month, Placek and his family had the opportunity to sit down with a representative from History Flight to talk with her about the process of how they located Critchley.
“We talked with her for a couple hours, and she shared several photos of the recovery process on the island and the wide range of work they do,” he said.
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, more than 400,000 died during the war. There are 72,990 service members (approximately 26,000 are assessed as possibly-recoverable) still unaccounted for from World War II.
Critchley’s name is recorded on the Tablets of the Missing at the NCMP, an American Battle Monuments Commission Cemetery, along with the others who are missing from World War II. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has now been accounted for.
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Information for this story was sourced from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency website.