A 20-year old U.S. Marine who was killed in action nearly 74 years ago during World War II is finally coming home and will be interred in his family's burial plot in December with full military honors.
A 20-year old U.S. Marine who was killed in action nearly 74 years ago during World War II is finally coming home and will be interred in his family’s burial plot in December with full military honors. The positive identification of Private 1st Class Donald Ross Tolson’s remains in September 2017 brings long-awaited closure for surviving family members. Tolson attended grade school in Laredo, about 30 miles northeast of Chillicothe, during the 1920s and ’30s. He was killed in the amphibious assault on the Pacific Atoll of Tarawa. The battle took place Nov. 20-23, 1943, when the U.S. began its Central Pacific Campaign against Japan by seizing the island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands. An estimated 1,000 U.S. Marines and sailors were killed in the brief battle and more than 2,000 wounded, according to Sgt. 1st Class Kristen Duus, of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Tarawa provided strategic location to the U.S. military and Betio, with total land mass of less than one square mile, had an airstrip. The island was held by the Japanese and fell to U.S. Marines of the Second Division after a 76-hour battle. An estimated 4,700 Japanese were killed in the battle. Tolson served with Company F, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, Fleet Marine Forces. He died on the first day of the attack. He was survived by his parents, Ora C. and Roxy Ann Mabel (McKay) Tolson, a brother, Chester, and his grandfather. Ora was born near the Alpha Baptist Church in Alpha. Tolson was born in Kansas City and attended grade school in Laredo. He moved with his family to Bakersfield, Calif., when he was a teenager and attended high school there. Upon graduation, his mother and father signed the papers allowing Tolson, then 17, to enlist in the Marines, which he did on Sept. 20, 1941, in San Diego, Calif. The battle of Tarawa took place just two years after his enlistment. He initially was reported as Missing in Action but in February 1944, his status was changed to Killed in Action, although his remains were never located. Attempts throughout the 1940s to locate Tolson’s remains were unsuccessful. The military located many U.S. soldiers but the vast majority of them could not be found. It wasn’t until 2015 when the nonprofit History Flight, Inc., discovered burial trenches that proved to be a major break in locating a vast number of soldiers whose remains had been classified as being non-recoverable. Working in partnership with History Flight, Inc., the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, worked on locating family members of those who were killed in action during the battle of Tarawa but whose remains were never recovered. That’s when DPAA contacted Connie Cross, who resides near Laredo, and asked her about Donald Tolson. “They called from out of the blue and asked if I was related to him,” Cross said. After she affirmed that her grandmother was Tolson’s aunt, she was then asked to provide a DNA sample. Although she had never met Tolson, she complied with the request hoping that his remains could be found, identified and brought home. “Even though none of us knew him, there was still this inherited sorrow,” Cross stated. “There was still that cloud of sorrow. He had been a legend in the family since his death.” After submitting the DNA sample, Cross anxiously checked her mailbox daily in the following months hoping for notification of significant developments. None came. Although more and more remains from Tarawa were being uncovered and identified, none of them belonged to Tolson. In spring 2017, Cross received a letter notifying her of a meeting in Overland Park, Kan. The meeting took place in April and drew residents from a 300-mile radius who were relatives of fallen soldiers whose bodies had not been recovered. Cross and her cousin, Teresa Smith, of Chillicothe, attended the meeting. “I didn’t know our country was even doing this,” Cross said. “This program is so amazing. The United States is the only country in world that recovers its heroes. It is so wonderful.” Cross noted that what is astounding is that there are 82,500 soldiers who are still missing. Of this number, 73,000 are from WWII, 7,755 from the Korean War and 1,611 from the Vietnam War. It wasn’t until sometime between February 2017 and July 2017, that skeletal remains – which would later prove to be Tolson’s – were recovered. The remains were found using various advanced investigative techniques to locate areas believed to contain the remains of men buried on Tarawa. DNA testing was not performed on remains believed to be Tolson’s because identification was established by chest radiograph comparison, a consistent biological profile and dental analysis. Cross’ mother was the last living cousin to have known Tolson until her death. Smith’s mother, Judy Klinginsmith, of Chillicothe, is the oldest, nearest relative of Tolson. On Sept. 18, 2017, she received a telephone call from Hattie Johnson, of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, who said that her cousin’s remains had been identified. “When she started talking to me, I couldn’t believe it,” Klinginsmith said. “I was the next of kin.” Judy was four years old when Tolson was killed. She had never met him, but she recalled her mother and Aunt Roxy talking about what may have happened to him. Judy had an older brother who was serving overseas. He was wounded, treated at a Germany hospital and he eventually returned home. Her cousin never did. Although Tolson’s remains never made it home, a headstone was placed in the family plot at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Kansas City with the hope that he may one day be laid to rest with other family members. Tolson’s mother died in 1952. “I’m sure she thought he would come home,” Klinginsmith said, adding that the grave site at the cemetery is not just a marker for Tolson, but a full-size empty grave. “I think she always had her hopes that they would find him and bring him home,” she added. The headstone reads: “PFC Donald Ross Tolson, Aug. 18, 1923 to Nov. 20, 1943, Killed in action Tarawa.” The Marine’s emblem of an eagle, globe and anchor is etched in the stone. “My mom would be so happy to know he’s coming home,” Klinginsmith said. The DPAA told Klinginsmith that Tolson’s body was wrapped in his poncho when he was buried and that the sandy soil helped preserve his remains. His skeletal remains were mostly intact and he had all his teeth that matched with his dental records. Additionally, his military ID tag, Marine ring, his helmet, a shovel and other items were placed with him. The surviving family members were told that Tolson died on the first day of battle. The cause of death is certified as ballistic injury of the head. Since receiving confirmation of Tolson’s identification, the family has moved forward with burial plans. Due to protocol for burial, the military needed a minimum of 45 days notice to prepare to bring Tolson home. His remains will be placed in a casket, along with a Marine blanket and a uniform resembling one that he would have worn. A flag will be placed atop the casket. The family will welcome Tolson home on the tarmac of Kansas City International Airport when his flag-draped coffin arrives with military guards. The funeral will take place Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017. In late October, Klinginsmith was visited at her home by Hattie Johnson, along with a Navy mortician and an active Marine. As the oldest, nearest relative, Klinginsmith was presented with her cousin’s medals and personal belongings. Among awards and honors Tolson earned: Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal, American Defense Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, WWII Victory Medal, Rifle Sharpshooter Badge and Pistol Marksman Badge. Following the funeral, Klinginsmith will receive the flag from the casket and a jar of sand from Tarawa with a picture of Tolson and his name etched on the jar. “It means a lot to us,” Klinginsmith said about the remains of her cousin being recovered and identified so that a burial can take place. “It brings closure,” she said. “He’s finally coming home.” Tolson is memorialized in Court 4 of the Courts of the Missing at Honolulu Memorial, National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Hawaii. Now that his remains have been identified, a rosette will be placed next to his name in the Courts of the Missing. As of Oct. 23, 2017, there remains 452 U.S. soldiers still unresolved from the Battle of Tarawa, according to Duus. This means that remains might not have been located or that the remains have been recovered and are in process of being identified and survivors being located. The identification of Tolson’s remains have impacted the family members and they can only image what his parents experienced not being able to have a burial for their son who was killed in action. “We get to have closure for them,” she said. “That’s a good feeling.” Donald Ross Tolson Private First Class, United States Marine Corps The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Washington, D.C., provided documents relating to PFC Donald Ross Tolson. Private 1st Class Donald Ross Tolson participated in the Second Marine Division’s assault of Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, from Nov. 20-23, 1943. Operation GALVANIC, the battle to obtain possession of Betio Island, was a successful amphibious attack against the atoll which had been occupied and heavily fortified by the Japanese. That success came at a great cost in American casualties; the 2nd Marine Division ultimately lost 973 men killed or missing. One hundred seven men of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment died during the battle, 70 of whom are still missing or unresolved today. On Nov. 20, 1943, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 2nd Marine Regiment and the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment launched the initial attack against the northern coast of Betio along beaches designated Red Beaches One, Two, and Three. The 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, called Landing Team 2/8 for the purposes of the invasion, debarked from the USS Heywood and loaded into amphibious landing vehicles for the journey from the ship to Red Beach Three. Landing Team 2/8 fared better than other teams in the initial assault wave and incurred lighter casualties on their way to the beach. Company E of LT 2/8 not only made it to the beach fairly intact, but also found that the far right side of the beach, where they had been instructed to land, had the weakest defenses. Many of their LVTs were able to carry the men across the taxiway of the airfield and unload the troops near the main airstrip. Once there, however, they discovered that PFC Tolson’s unit, Company F, had not been able to advance with them on the left as they had planned. Instead, Company F experienced heavy machine gun fire at their landing location in the middle of Red Beach Three that they were pinned down near the water’s edge. Company E defended their forward position for several hours, but eventually pulled back to an area much closer to the beach because the other members of LT 2/8 could not advance far enough to support them. By the time of the retreat of Company E, Company F had incurred major casualties. At nightfall on Nov. 20, LT 2/8 occupied positions within 150 years of the water along Red Beach Three. At some point during Company F’s fight on Nov. 20, Tolson was killed in action.