Maybe it’s supposed to be like that. A smile, and a warm memory, can still cut through the sepia-toned somberness of a funeral for a World War II veteran.
Especially one who had been lost to the fighting in Japan for 73 years.
That’s why those gathered at the West Virginia National Cemetery on Monday afternoon couldn’t help but laugh — when the literal little sister of Emmett Kines said a few words on his behalf.
She needed some help getting to the podium.
But once Betty Huffman was there, the 90-year-old stood as tall as her age, and her diminutive frame, would allow.
“I’ll tell you what,” she said to those gathered at the military cemetery near this historic Taylor County Civil War town. “He was ornery.”
Kines was 23 when he enlisted in the in 1942. A year later, a Gold Star was hanging in the window of his family home in Grafton.
It wasn’t a definitive Gold Star, though, in that he never got to come home.
Kines’ remains were recently recovered from a mass grave at Tarawa, Japan, by History Flight Inc., a private organization that uses airplane searches and DNA analysis to bring fallen vets back to their families.
“I just never thought this would happen,” Huffman said.
Huffman remembered her brother as a fun-loving prankster.
Like his sister, he and his other siblings were born in Grafton and spent their summers working on a family farm in neighboring Preston County. Huffman is the only one left.
It was serious business, that farm.
During the Depression, what didn’t get grown didn’t make it to the dinner table, which meant bellies would be growling the next day.
Huffman, who was 7 years younger than Emmett, said her brother worked to lighten the gravity of their circumstance.
He was known to shovel elaborate, and smelly, obstacle courses in the barn, using horse manure and rope.
If you didn’t employ the rope to swing over the organic detour, she said, laughing, your shoes would spend the next several weeks outside.
The horror of war
There was no laughing when Kines and his fellow shipped out to Japan.
That’s because they were on their way to acquire some contested real estate.
Company F, 2nd Battalion, 8th , had one order, to take one island, in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands chain.
Those often tiny land masses in the South Pacific were huge to the American war effort.
If you can take the island, you can put in an airstrip.
Put in an airstrip, and you can put fighter planes in the air.
But, you have to take the island.
And Betio — sounds like, “ratio” — wasn’t there for the taking.
The were cut down in heavy surf the instant they hopped off their amphibious landing crafts.
For three days, Nov. 20 through the 23, in 1943, a literal bloodbath ensued.
By the time the finally gained a Semper Fi foothold, more than 1,000 of their ranks lay dead on the sand at Betio. One of them was Kines.
Well, maybe he can.
Dickson, who enlisted in the in 1968 and was a combat veteran of Vietnam, drove up from his home in Virginia Beach, Va., to pay his respects.
Dickson’s friend, Cary Shinn, a U.S. Navy chaplain who also fought in Southeast Asia, helped preside over Kines’ service.
If you’re a in battle, Dickson said, you’re going to push on, no matter the odds.
And that point, he said, isn’t open to negotiation.
“It’s what you do,” he said.
“It’s what a generation of brave soldiers like Emmett Kines did in World War II.”
Home of the brave
On Monday afternoon at the West Virginia National Cemetery, the flag whispered a rustle in the breeze.
Spent shell casings from an honor guard’s 21-gun salute clinked onto the pavement.
And Arlington rows of identical white headstones bore silent witness to it all.
Huffman kissed a carnation and placed it at the head of her brother’s casket.
“I’ve spent my whole life missing him,” she said.
“He was my buddy. And now he’s back home.”
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