Great Lakes National Cemetery, Holly, MI — October 25, 2019
A remarkable event took place Friday, October 25th at the Great Lakes National Cemetery. Private First Class, Kenneth W. Likens, 20, from Mount Clemens, MI served his country honorably and lost his life in defense of freedom. He was buried in the National Cemetary just outside of Holly, MI.
What is remarkable about this story is that Pfc. Likens was killed in action on the Island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands in 1943 during World War II. Through the efforts of a group called History Flight and the Department of Defense, Likens remains were recovered and identified. Now, 76 years later, Kenneth W. Likens returned to his native Michigan to be laid to rest with full military honors.
War in the Pacific
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, America’s war in the Pacific concentrated on stopping the advancement of the Japanese Imperial forces. The Naval battle of Midway and the island assault of Guadalcanal turned the tide and allowed the American Command to begin island hopping on their way to Japan.
The Gilbert Islands were considered a key staging area to advance upon the Marshall Islands and then the Mariana Islands. The attacks there began in November of 1943 with the small island of Betio, a part of the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilberts, being the first important target.
American warships anchored near the Tarawa Atoll on November 19, 1943. The attack on Betio was to begin the next day. The island was heavily fortified and held by 4,300 Japanese troops. The battle to take the island lasted 3 days as a force of 18,000 troops supported by a full complement of naval vessels eventually captured the small landmass.
The fighting was brutal and costly for both sides. Only 17 Japanese soldiers survived as suicide attacks became the last resort of the island’s desperate defenders. Over 1,000 American troops died and 2,000 more were injured.
Pfc. Likens Sacrifice
According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Pfc. Likens was a member of Company B, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force. He died on the third day of the invasion, November 22, 1943, most likely from the shrapnel of an exploding shell. The fighting was so intense, many of the casualties were buried where they fell or in mass graves at key points on the battlefield.
According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. “In 1946, the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company (604th GRC) centralized all of the American remains found on Tarawa to Lone Palm Cemetery for later repatriation; however, almost half of the known casualties were never found. No recovered remains could be associated with Likens, and in October 1949, a Board of Review declared him non-recoverable.”
The press release went on to say. “In 2009, History Flight, Inc., a nonprofit organization, notified DPAA that they discovered a burial site on Betio Island and recovered the remains of what they believed to be missing American service members who had been buried in Cemetery #33. In March 2019, following continued excavations, a previously undiscovered burial trench was uncovered. The remains were accessioned into the DPAA laboratory in Hawaii.”
To identify Likens’ remains, scientists from DPAA used dental, anthropological and chest radiograph comparison analysis, as well as circumstantial and material evidence.
Likens remains were flown to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii where identification took place.
Arriving at the Great Lakes National Cemetery, Likens’ casket, draped in an American Flag, was greeted by the United States Marine Honor Guard who carried the coffer to the memorial shelter.
The ceremony was marked by a 21 gun salute, the playing of Taps and the folding of the flag. Which was presented to Likens’ nephew Kenneth Dolan. Born five years after Likens’ death, Dolan was named after his beloved uncle.
In an interview given to the Detroit Free Press, Dolan said; “I’m really proud of our country, what they’ve done for him and my family.”
Special thanks to Johnny Burke from 103.9, The Fox for bringing the story to everyone’s attention on his radio show Friday morning. A very respectful gathering of citizens turned out to honor Private First Class, Kenneth W. Likens for his service to our country. Rest in Peace, Marine.