A Movie, An Angry Marine and a Homecoming
Saturday's funeral for Watseka native Jack Redman, the World War II casualty whose remains only recently were identified, is just the latest chapter in an ongoing story that involves the late actor Eddie Albert, a Chicago alderman, a Los Angeles filmmaker and cast of other behind-the-scenes characters.
"The battle for Tarawa [a tiny, but strategic Pacific island held by the Japanese until an assault by U.S. Marines, Nov. 23, 1943] was one of the bloodiest of the war," said independent movie maker Steven Barber. "But I really didn't know much about it until I had a chance to talk with Eddie Albert in 1995.
"He [Albert] was there. He told me how bad it was. More than 1,000 Marines died in three days of fighting," he added. Barber also noted the makeshift burial grounds left hundreds of bodies unaccounted for on this 281-acre speck of land. The subtropical outpost is about midway between Australia and Hawaii.
The meeting with Albert led Barber to produce his film, "Return to Tarawa," released in 2009. Actor Ed Harris narrated the story of WWII veteran Leon Cooper and his memories, 65 years after the hard-fought battle against the well-fortified Japanese. The story noted the graves of as many as 600 Americans were neglected and forgotten, amid the rubble of war machinery and live ammunition.
The hallowed ground where so many young Marines gave their lives also was littered with huge piles of garbage.
The film eventually made its way to one of the cable TV military channels, where Chicago's 11th Ward Alderman James Balcer, a Marine in his own right, saw it.
"You could say I was upset, but that doesn't really cover it," Balcer said. "It's tragic that these men who fought this vicious battle would be forgotten. They reduced a Japanese force of something like 5,000, to maybe 17 survivors. More than 1,000 Marines died in those 72 hours, and more than 500 were left on that island."
"And this isn't a massive place like Europe or Southeast Asia, it is beyond me, why the American government didn't go back and retrieve those bodies. It's a black mark in American history."
So Balcer took his message to U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Chicago. If it was only a matter of appropriating the funds to pay for the search, he knew Lipinski would lead the charge on Capitol Hill.
"We owe our thanks to Dan. He needed no argument from me. He secured the money, and he's responsible for stories like this one, providing closure for the Redman family.
"This is my final day in office," Balcer added. "And I can't imagine a better use of my time: I'm going out to O'Hare [International Airport] with Alderman Ed Burke [another Marine] to see the casket [removed from the plane and transferred to the hearse for the trip to Watseka]."
It was through Lipinski's efforts that Jack Redman's younger brother, Merrill, was made aware of the program to recover the remains of the fallen on Tarawa. Merrill made a visit to the island, armed only with the faded photo that his other brother, Hobert, took. It showed his brother's grave as it looked during the war years.
But things looked very different in 2014. This island is barely the size of New York City's Central Park, but it's now home to about 50,000 residents. Even with GPS technology, the search team needed the help of a friendly native who told them of a neighbor who found some bones while digging for a pipe in his backyard.
With a DNA match, the remains were positively identified in late 2014. Military procedures required some extra time, so the casket carrying those remains didn't arrive in Chicago until Friday morning. Watseka's long-awaited World War II hero didn't arrive in his hometown until nearly 3 that afternoon. The funeral services were set for noon Saturday.
Jack Redman was scheduled to arrive at his final resting place about 1:30 p.m. in the GAR Cemetery outside Watseka — almost 71 years and six months and 6,700 miles removed from the day and the place where he gave his life for his country.
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