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Mission accomplished: 70 years later, WW II vet pays his respects to fallen friend who died in Tarawa

Elwin Hart
Ret. Marine Col Elwin Hart and his wife, Nancy. Photo: Facebook

Pfc. Elmer “Rabbit” Mathies Jr. and retired Colonel Elwin Hart became fast friends long before they had to battle entrenched Japanese troops on Tarawa in 1943. Mathies did not survive the bloody Pacific battle and for more than 70 years, Hart says he didn’t know what became of Mathies’ body. His was among many gravesites declared “unrecoverable” by the Defense Department.

Today, more than 73,000 Americans are unaccounted for from WW II.

Last year, Hart wrote an appeal to fellow Marines with the 2nd Marine Division Association to “Find Rabbit” and someone did —  according to The News Tribune.

The nonprofit group History Flight — which works to recover the remains of military service members killed overseas — recovered what are believed to be Mathies’ remains last summer on Tarawa. The organization spent a decade searching for lost cemeteries that were filled quickly after the infamous battle.

“There is wall-to-wall housing and businesses there now. His cemetery was found under a parking lot, Hart said… about 36 were found at that site.”

We lost about 1,100 Marines and sailors during that three-day operation, said Hart.

Everyone in our 50 men platoon knew Rabbit; he was a very  likable guy. Hart was with Rabbit when he was killed  and wants his family to know that. He says they deserve to have his remains back home and to know that he was not MIA.  Mathies’ sister is the last remaining person alive who knew him and says she’s waiting on the final ID — but his dog tags were found and the dental records appear to match.

“I think it would be very honorable if I could bring Elmer Jr. back,” she said.

Hart, now 90, eventually went on to have a 33-year career in the military and says he and Rabbit had a lot in common. They both somehow managed to enlist in the service before age 18.They went on to serve together in American Samoa just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. They fought together in Guadalcanal and spent a 10-month training stint in New Zealand.

“He was always in a little bit of trouble,” Hart says about his beloved friend. “He loved to play tricks on the others and always had a smile on his face.”

During the battle, their platoon found shelter in a Japanese mortar pit where they started “running communications” between Marines on land and commanders in ships at sea. Mathies was sitting on the edge of a dugout when “a sniper’s bullet felled him.” On Christmas Eve 1943, his family received a telegram saying that he was missing in action.

Tarawa Battle 2
Over 1,100 Marines were killed by Japanese shellfire as they waded ashore from stranded landing craft during the battle for Tarawa, a Pacific atoll, on Dec. 4, 1943. Smoke rises from destroyed Japanese installations. Photo: U.S. Marine Corps

Now back at home in Federal Way, Washington, Hart says he thinks back often about his war buddy. He started to do some writing recently at his retirement community to “get out of the funk he was in.” He put together a self-published memoir entitled, “Did I Do Enough?” Hart’s wife also records vets’ stories at the Village Green community.

The couple is looking forward to paying their respects and saying their final goodbyes to Mathies soon — along with his sister. Hart says he bought a brand new dress uniform to wear for the service — for his old friend and fellow Marine.

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