MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Delta flight 1492 was draped in a watery salute on its arrival Friday morning from Honolulu to Minneapolis.
“The call of battle was there and he never got home,” explains Jay Hagen.
For Hagen and his extended family, soon the solemnness of Marines wearing dress blues, gripping firmly to a flag-draped casket, decades of agonizing questions would quickly vanish.
“We’ve only heard small bits of the story,” explains Jay’s brother, Mark Hagen.
They are referring to a war story set 74 years ago. On November 21, 1943 their uncle, U.S. Marine Sergeant James J. Hubert, was killed and buried in the battle for Tarawa in the south Pacific.
“What was going through me as we’re standing there and the casket’s coming off is the story has just come to life,” said Mark Hagen.
Since falling in the battle with Japanese soldiers, Hubert’s remains were unknown — buried in a mass grave called Tarawa’s Lost Cemetery 27.
That was until 2002 when construction workers digging on the tiny island of Betio made an accidental discovery.
“The local nationals there were digging a light post and footer for the post and found a Marine,” said John Frye.
Soon after, Frye and recovery crews with the non-profit “History Flight” would uncover 52 more. Sergeant James Joseph Hubert was located in March 2015.
“We dug just to the east of Roger K. Nielsen and that’s where James Hubert was. They were in a burial row that had about seven or eight Marines. We recovered six of them out of that burial row,” Frye said.
Buried in the heat of battle, Friday’s dignified return of Hubert’s remains was long overdue. And for the Duluth native’s family, it was also bittersweet and raw.
Mark and Jay Hagen’s mother, Mary, was just a toddler when her older brother went off to fight in World War II.
“She’s lived with this knowledge for her entire life. It was tough,” Jay said.
For Mary Hagen, she stood stoically on the MSP tarmac as her brother’s casket was removed from the cargo hold and carried by the Marine honor guard to an awaiting hearse. Hagen, wiping back tears, finally has the brother she never knew.
Soon after his arrival, Hubert’s casket was escorted to nearby Fort Snelling National Cemetery where it would briefly lay in repose. With Patriot Guard gripping U.S. flags along the route, the family could finally absorb the military honors their hero so richly deserves.
Near the end of the repose, a formation of World War II era T-6 aircraft appears from the south, flying in the traditional missing man formation, one plane trailing off with a stream of white smoke.
An aerial salute to a decades-long missing U.S. Marine, now missing no more.
“The story now is coming to life,” added Mark Hagen.
Sergeant James J. Hubert will be laid to rest near the family plot in Duluth’s Calgary Cemetery on Saturday, July 15, 2017 at 11:00 a.m.
For more information on the recovery efforts of History Flight, click here.