Brother Hopes for Marine's Proper Burial
Southtown Star/Chicago Sun-Times
September 5, 2010
By Casey Toner
Deno Zazzetti has been waiting 68 years for his big brother to come home - even knowing it would be in a coffin.
Deno, a former U.S. Marine, now 81, was 13 years old when he last saw Joseph Zazzetti in their hometown of Chicago Heights.
It was 1942. Joseph had enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps to fight in World War II - and he would die the next year in the Pacific Battle of Tarawa.
Federal workers are on Tarawa - a string of narrow islets just 80 miles north of the equator - searching for the remains of hundreds of U.S. Marines and sailors killed in the 76-hour fight. Once recovered, the skeletal remains will be brought home to the United States to be identified and given a final resting place.
It would mean closure for Deno Zazzetti , who thinks about his brother and looks at images of his face every day. In the bedroom of Deno's Crest Hill residence are two framed, black-and-white military portraits of the wide-eyed young men, donning their captain's hats and ceremonial outfits.
Of the two, Deno was the lucky one. He received an honorable discharge from the Marines, got married, started a career fixing vending machines and had a family.
Joseph was flown out to fight in the Pacific Theater. His family never saw him again.
Bringing them back home
Decades passed, and the hope Deno Zazzetti had that he one day would get to bury his brother darkened. World War II had long since been won, new wars were being waged, and the fight at Tarawa didn't seem to be even a footnote on the American conscience.
Deno, who had moved to Crest Hill, got a call from his sister Dora in 2008 that brought his hope back to the forefront. Dora, a Florida resident, read a newspaper article detailing local efforts to bring the remains of American soldiers home from Tarawa.
History Flight, a Florida-based non p rofit group dedicated to finding and bringing home missing U.S. servicemen, was sponsoring a search by a team of experts for bodies on the island.
Deno Zazzetti contacted Mark Noah, the director of History Flight, who claimed to have found 139 Marines in eight grave sites on Betio at the southern end of Tarawa. These findings later were presented to Congress.
Inspired by the developments, Zazzetti got city proclamations from Crest Hill and Joliet urging the government to search for the fallen soldiers. Meanwhile, Chicago Ald. James Balcer (11th), a Marine who served in the Vietnam War, also read about History Flight's project and was compelled to act.
"You're talking about an island that's about a mile (wide) and 800 yards long," he said. "To leave their remains - some of them have been under pigsties, some of them have been under latrines - is just disgraceful."
Noah put Balcer in contact with Zazzetti because of Zazzetti's connection to the famous battle. Balcer had Zazzetti and other Chicago-area residents testify before the Chicago Commission on Human Relations to support a proclamation urging the U.S. government to send out search teams for the fallen soldiers' remains.
The resolution passed, and Balcer reached out to U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd), who last summer drafted an amendment to a budget bill. The amendment directed the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command to conduct the search.
The Pentagon oversaw a preliminary search on the island in 2009, and the trip was a success. Last month, an 11-person team from the command traveled to Tarawa to search for and exhume remains, which were to be transferred to a Hawaii lab to undergo an identification process.
"It looks like we are going to at least recover some of the remains of those men who were killed 67 years ago," Lipinski said. "This is the right thing for the families and the right thing for us to do as a country."
Noah invited Zazzetti on a trip to Tarawa to witness the search process, but undergoing quadruple-bypass surgery and a valve replacement kept him off the long flight.
Last year, Zazzetti gave a DNA sample so the government can try to match it with DNA from his brother's remains.
If found, Joseph would be buried alongside his parents in Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Steger.
"It would be closure," Deno said. "This is the country he died for. Get him back here and buried where he belongs."
Joseph always had a special place in the Zazzetti family. He was the first son of Thomas and Ida.
The first-generation American couple emigrated from San Benetto del Tronto, Italy, to Chicago Heights. They lived in a one-story home on Hanover Street in the city's east side neighborhood.
Thomas worked at Inland Steel. Ida was a homemaker, and they had three children - Dora, Deno and Joseph. Their family attended St. Agnes Parish.
Joseph graduated from Bloom High School in 1939. He worked at Raues Department Store as a window dresser and as a steelworker at Amsco Steel. He loved to dance with his girlfriend and collect Glen Miller records.
A year after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, Joseph enlisted in the Marine Corps. The night before he left, he had a party thrown in his honor in the basement of his parents' house. Friends, family and neighbors stopped by for drinks and to wish him well.
But Joseph, who served in the 2nd Marine Division 1st Amphibious Tractor Battalion, was killed in action Nov. 20, 1943. He was riding in an amphibian tractor when it was destroyed by a 40 mm shell.
He was one of more than 1,100 Marines and sailors who died in the battle. Of a 4,700-person opposition force, only 146 survived. Since the death toll was so high, many corpses were buried in makeshift graves.
"The island is about the size of the Pentagon," Noah said. "In the course of three days, almost 6,000 people were killed. They buried most of the Marines with bulldozers."
The family got word of Joseph's death through a telegram Dec. 24, 1943. A Western Union boy delivered the note and ran away.
"My sister almost collapsed," Deno Zazzetti said. "My father was stunned; it was his first - born. My mother used to sing every day. She quit singing. It just tore the family apart."
In 1948, the family got a letter from the U.S. government. Deno still keeps it in a manila envelope, along with a photograph of a Tarawa memorial bearing his brother's name among others. Contrary to prior reports, the yellowing letter says, Joseph's body was not in a marked grave. It was not recov ered. He would not be coming home.
The closest his family would get to his return was in 2001, when an honorary headstone was dedicated in his memory at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood.
"There's a difference knowing there's nothing there," Zazzetti said. "It's a grave marker. That's it."
Contribute Volunteer Lawn Sign Get Updates