“I can’t believe this,” Healdsburg grape grower John Saini thought aloud at midday Friday from the backseat of a limousine as it rolled beneath the second or third Highway 101 overpass bearing emergency vehicles, first responders who stood in salute and civilians who held American flags.
The Cadillac carrying Saini and his sister, Liz McDowell, closely followed a formation of police and private motorcycles, a van-load of U.S. Marines and a silver hearse.
Inside the hearse was the casket containing the remains of the siblings’ uncle, the Marine who died in a nightmarish World War II battle and for more than 70 years lay in a lost grave on a miserable speck of an island in the central Pacific.
The 65-year-old John Saini riding in the limo was named for Pfc. John Saini, who was just 20 when he perished Nov. 20, 1943, the first day of the strategically successful but historically catastrophic Battle of Tawara.
The Marine’s niece and his namesake nephew and other of the 15 members of their family who escorted his remains home from San Francisco International Airport welled up at the sight of all the well-wishers who waited for the motorcade from above or along the highway and from outside the day’s destination, the Eggen & Lance Chapel near Santa Rosa Junior College.
Niece McDowell, 62, remains heartsick that Pfc. Saini’s Italian immigrant parents and also his brother and sister didn’t live to witness the good-humored young warrior’s return for the proper burial that will happen at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Healdsburg’s Oak Mound Cemetery.
But McDowell couldn’t be more grateful to the many professionals and volunteers — and one diligent dog that didn’t live long enough to be part of Friday’s homecoming — whose efforts will allow the family to at last lay him to rest.
“We have to look at it as celebration, really,” she said.
Albeit it one long delayed.
Pfc. Saini, who was born in 1923 and grew up in an Alexander Valley winegrowing family, was one of more than 1,000 Marines and sailors who died 73 years ago in the course of just a three-day battle to take the Japanese islet of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll. When the Marines prevailed on Betio, no bigger than Santa Rosa’s Spring Lake Regional Park, more than 5,000 Japanese soldiers and Korean slave laborers also lay dead.
Saini was one of the many Marines buried hastily in battlefield graves. Shortly after the war, many of those graves were excavated and the remains moved to national or hometown cemeteries.
But some of the Tarawa graves were not found. It crushed the parents of the young Marine from Healdsburg, Mike and Mary Saini, to be notified not long before 1950 that his remains had been declared unrecoverable.
They would still be lost were it not for History Flight, Inc., the Florida-based nonprofit committed to using technology such as sub-surface remote sensing, painstaking research and tireless labor to locate and repatriate the unaccounted-for remains of Americans lost to 20th century wars.
Between 2006 and last year, searchers with History Flight spent more than 50,000 hours looking for the more than 600 Marines whose remains were left behind on Betio. The recovery mission’s volunteers include Paul Dostie, a retired Mammoth Lakes police detective sergeant and for more than a decade the handler and best friend of a human-remains detection dog, Buster.
Dostie, who will attend Pfc. Saini’s graveside service along with History Flight founder Mark Noah, said that throughout Buster’s career, the black Lab scored more than 250 documented discoveries of the remains of casualties of war, crime victims and others.
“That’s the most of any dog in history,” Dostie said. He said no other dog has ever located Americans’ remains on battlefields, and that prior to taking Buster to Betio three times, they assisted in locating battlefield graves in Belgium,Germany, France and the Netherlands.
It was Dostie who conducted the research that allowed History Flight to focus on one specific patch of Betio soil. He said he was led to it by accounts of the discovery there of a single Marine’s remains in 2002.
Though the retired detective’s inquiry led a high-tech search team to a certain patch of ground, he said it was Buster that sniffed and then signaled the presence of human remains.
“He was the one who discovered the site,” Dostie said.
He had never seen anything to compare with what History Flight staffers and volunteers found last June in the burial trench on Betio. Many of the skeletal remains still were in full battle gear. There were coins in the pockets and alongside were unexploded hand grenades and personal effects.
“They were dressed just like when they died,” Dostie said.
He said the removal of each set of remains took about 24 hours. Over the course of many months, Department of Defense specialists succeeded in positively identifying the remains of 35 Marines.
One was Pfc. John Saini. The identification of his nearly complete skeleton was assisted by the DNA that his sister, Virginia Hallin, a veteran of the WWII Women’s Reserve, had donated as part of her lifelong effort to promote and aid in the search for his remains.
Hallin died in 2014. Pfc. Saini’s brother, Gene Saini, a Navy veteran and the father of Liz McDowell and the younger John Saini, died in 2006.
The siblings have been told that when they meet Mark Noah of History Search Saturday, he will give them some of their uncle’s personal effects. Found with him in the grave were items that include his razor, a can of rations, a battle knife and a trenching shovel.
McDowell was rather drained by Friday’s emotional trip to SFO and back, but she said Friday afternoon she looks forward to meeting and expressing her gratitude to Noah and Dostie at Saturday’s graveside service.
Had Buster not died on Feb. 26 at the age of 12 and a half, McDowell would have been thrilled also to meet the dog that made the discovery that at long last brought her uncle home.
“We’re so very thankful,” she said. She and the rest of the family of Pfc. Saini are also happy to have heard retired detective Dostie will continue to search and that he’s training Bosco, a black Lab puppy, to take up where Buster left off.
Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @CJSPD.
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