In early December 1943, when Lois Van Zandt Wright was 17 years old, her brother Jack was reported missing in action.
Her parents, George and Blanche Van Zandt, prayed that their son, a private first class in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve during World War II and barely 21, was lying in a hospital somewhere — injured but alive.
But a couple of weeks later, just a few days before Christmas, she came home from school to find her mother sobbing.
A telegram from Washington, D.C., confirmed their worst fears: Her beloved brother, who had survived the Battle of Guadalcanal, had been killed in action.
While the Van Zandts, who lived west of Danville, initially believed their son was buried in a cemetery on the small Pacific Ocean island where he died, they were informed later that his remains were missing and declared “non-recoverable.”
But on Sept. 23, nearly 76 years after his death, the young Marine was finally accounted for.
Nancy Linde, Mrs. Wright’s daughter, received the news on Oct. 2, two days before her mother’s death.
When Linde and other family members sat down with representatives from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in her Jacksonville, Fla., home, and finally learned the missing pieces of her uncle’s story, she felt relief wash over her “to know her prayers were answered.”
“My mother always believed they would be found, and he would be returned,” she said. “She had no doubt about it.”
Jack Benson Van Zandt was born in Rossville, the third of four children, and grew up on a farm in the Batestown area. He attended Oakwood schools and graduated from Oakwood High School in 1939. After high school, he moved to Indianapolis, where an aunt and uncle lived, and worked for Eli Lilly.
In May 1942, he enlisted and was a member of Company A, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, which fought in the Pacific Theater and was part of the Guadalcanal campaign.
In November 1943, following a two-week leave, Van Zandt landed against stiff Japanese resistance on Betio Island in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands, south of the Marshall Islands, in an attempt to secure the small island.
“It was a mile long and a mile-and-a-half wide, and (U.S. military commanders) wanted to use it for an airstrip,” Linde said.
Her uncle was killed on Nov. 22, 1943, during the third day of battle. He received a Purple Heart posthumously.
He was one of the 1,000 or so Marines and sailors who were killed over several days of intense fighting at Tarawa, according to the DPAA. More than 2,000 American troops were wounded, and the Japanese were virtually annihilated.
“We received word of his death on Dec. 22, 1943,” Mrs. Wright wrote in a letter to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in 2009. “It was a shock to all of us. We had great concern throughout his time on Guadalcanal Island, but he made it through that battle and was able to have R&R on New Zealand and Australia for two weeks. My parents were concerned, for they had not heard from him for a while, and he wrote home regularly. They knew from newspaper articles that he could be in grave danger.”
Linde, who used to live in Illinois and visited her grandparents on their farm, never recalled them talking about her uncle.
“They were very, very devastated. But back then, you didn’t talk about those things. Everyone had lost someone,” she said.
Her mother, however, talked about him “adoringly,” Linde said.
Mrs. Wright shared some memories in her letter to the Hall.
“Jack was four years older than I, but that didn’t seem to matter,” she wrote. “We played card games, croquet, pitched horse shoes and sang songs in harmony with my friends. He was my friend, mentor and protector. Jack, brother George, sister Aileen and I all worked together with our parents, sharing the many responsibility of living on a farm.”
Wright also spoke admiringly of her brother’s Christian faith.
“He sang in the choir, and if he didn’t have transportation to practice or to church, he would hitchhike to get there,” she wrote, adding he hoped to become a minister after the war. “He attended church wherever he was located, and we received letters from families he had visited from Indianapolis San Diego, Australia and New Zealand when they heard he had been killed in action. We were told by a high school friend, who was on Tarawa with him, that he would minister to his fellow Marines while overseas.”
After her brother’s death, Lois’s high school sweetheart and later husband, Howard D. Wright, managed to fly to Betio Island and take a photo of her brother’s grave.
“He was a navigator on a bomber,” Linde said of her late father, a 1942 Oakwood High graduate, who grew up in Fithian. “He hitched a ride and took a picture of the cross that said Jack Van Zandt, thinking his body was buried there. But later, when they dug up the graves under these crosses, there were no bodies there.”
According to the DPAA, Van Zandt’s remains, along with those of other American casualties, were recorded as buried in East Division Cemetery on Betio. But, in 1946, when the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company was centralizing all of the American remains found on Tarawa at Lone Palm Cemetery for later repatriation, a problem was discovered. Almost half of the known casualties couldn’t be found.
In October 1949, a Board of Review declared Van Zandt’s remains “non-recoverable.”
Then in 2014, a team from History Flight Inc., a nonprofit organization, located a burial trench on the island that correlated with Cemetery 33, and excavations uncovered multiple sets of remains that were turned over to the DPAA in 2015. Agency scientists used dental and anthropological analysis, as well as material evidence, to identify the remains, including Van Zandt’s.
Linde recalled attending a meeting in Jacksonville a few years ago where she learned about the DPAA’s efforts to identify the remains of servicemen and -women from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
“There were all of these widows and children still mourning for the people they lost,” said Linde, who signed up for a DNA swab to help in her uncle’s case.
She later contacted her sister, Carolyn Scherrer, to get a DNA sample from her mother, who by then lived near Rockford.
“It turned out they didn’t even need those,” Linde said, adding her uncle was identified through dental records and his Class of 1939 ring, which was engraved with his initials — JBV.
Linde initially learned that her uncle’s remains were positively identified by a nephew. Then she got a call from Hattie Johnson, head of the POW/MIA Section at Marine Corps Headquarters, who on Nov. 1 met with her, her husband and son, a former Marine, at her home. Johnson and another official brought thick documentation that included information about the battle, her uncle’s death and the process scientists used to identify his remains, among other things.
One of the surprises: Most of her uncle’s skeletal remains had been found, which officials said is unusual.
“He had only one little teeny bone missing from his little toe,” Linde said.
Another surprise, though chilling: Her uncle’s skull had two large holes in it, showing he had been shot in the head.
Linde said she was touched and comforted to learn that a chaplain honored the dead by saying prayers over their bodies before they were buried.
Linde said her mother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and had been ill during the last two weeks of her life. Still, as soon as she learned her uncle had been accounted for, she called her sister, who, in turn, shared the news with their mother.
While she didn’t show any signs of understanding, Linde is satisfied just knowing the identification happened.
“It’s something she wanted forever.”
In 2002, shortly after Linde’s father died from illness and another brother died in an accident, Linde’s mother had a marker for her brother placed in the family plot at Sunset Memorial Park in Danville. Mrs. Wright was laid to rest there on Oct. 9.
Linde said the family is now deciding where to bury her uncle’s remains. The plot in Danville is only large enough to hold cremated remains.
“They went to such pains to recover him. If they went to all of that trouble I think he should remain that way,” she said, adding if that location doesn’t work, he will be buried at the National Cemetery in Danville.
Linde said she and her husband are planning a trip to Hawaii for their 50th anniversary next year. Her uncle’s name is recorded on the Courts of the Missing at the Punchbowl, along with others killed or lost in WWII. She’s looking forward to seeing the rosette, which will be placed next to his name, indicating he has been accounted for.