Home News 73 years later, a Marine veteran returns home for burial after Tarawa

73 years later, a Marine veteran returns home for burial after Tarawa


nicholas-j-cancillaALTOONA, Pa. – In 2012, when investigators unearthed a battlefield grave on the tiny Pacific island of Betio, they came upon a handful of artifacts.

Among them: a small lapel pin commemorating a perfect bowling score in Altoona, 7,000 miles away.

Years later, DNA evidence would confirm one of the three men buried there was Nicholas J. Cancilla, an Altoona native killed on the first day of a 1943 battle that would ultimately leave nearly 1,700 Americans and 4,700 Japanese dead.

On Monday – almost 73 years after he died – Cancilla’s remains will be interred at Calvary Cemetery with full military honors.

The Roman Catholic Mass and burial ceremony, both open to the public, conclude a five-year process that began when history researchers received a simple tip about a grave along a blue Pacific lagoon.

“He needs to be honored,” said Darlene Johnson of Virginia, Cancilla’s niece and one of his only living relatives. “I’m glad he’s coming home.”

It was in late 1942, several months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, that Cancilla joined the . A photograph in the Mirror shows the young man – just 17 when he signed up – smiling in a crisp dress uniform.

Cancilla left for the Pacific, spending time training before his unit, the 2nd Marine Division, was called up to attack the isolated Tarawa atoll on Nov. 20, 1943.

Located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, the tiny islands bristled with Japanese defenses. Cancilla would be among the first waves to land on Betio.

Cancilla’s grave was discovered by History Flight, a Florida-based nonprofit that has spent years exploring and excavating for Marines’ remains, in 2012.

In the years that followed the discovery, officials sought DNA from his brother Frank – by then in his 90s – to confirm the remains’ identity. Results came in late 2015, Johnson said, but final confirmation arrived just months after Frank’s November 2015 death.

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