Roxy Ann Tolson died wanting her son to come home to her.
He was so young when he went off to fight. Roxy knew she’d lost him. Word had come that Donald Tolson had been killed in action. Along with word that his body could not be found, adding his family’s peace to the long list of casualties from the world’s greatest war.
But Roxy never gave up hope that someday, somehow, he would come back to her for final rest. So she arranged for a burial plot next to her own at Mt. Moriah Cemetery in south Kansas City. She died in 1952.
For 60 some years, it appeared the other plot would be a futile gesture of a mother’s heart. Then, just recently on the island of Betio in the South Pacific, a man decided to build a carport.
In his digging, he found the rusty, dirt-eaten dog tags of U.S. Marine “D.R. Tolson 319208.”
On Friday, Dec. 1, family members will meet a plane on the tarmac at KCI. Roxy Tolson’s youngest boy was finally coming home. A military escort will accompany the remains to Mt. Moriah. A funeral with full military rights, including a Marine chaplain and bagpiper, will be Saturday.
“None of us remember him,” said Judy Kliginsmith, a first cousin of Donald and 16 years his junior. “He joined up right out of high school and he never came back. The ones that would remember are already gone. But we’re getting as many as we can to meet the plane. Aunt Roxy would want that.”
A disastrous landing
Donald Ross Tolson was born Aug. 18, 1923, in Kansas City. The family, including an older brother, lived north of Chillicothe, Mo., and he attended a rural school in nearby Laredo. They moved to California when Donald was a teenager.
Kliginsmith, 78, who lives in Chillicothe, doesn’t know why the family moved. Or for that matter much of anything about her cousin. She just remembers family talk over the years about the mystery of what happened to his body.
“About the only thing I know about Donald is that he once chased my older sister with a snake, so I guess he was a fun-loving sort,” she said.
And apparently an adventuresome sort.
According to the Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency (DPAA), Donald joined the Marine Corps two weeks past his 18th birthday and soon found himself fighting on islands on the other side of the world from his roots in Grundy County, Missouri.
On Nov. 20, 1943, his outfit climbed down from the USS Heywood to load into landing crafts bound for Red Beach Three on Betio Island, part of the Tarawa Atoll, in the Gilbert Islands. This would be the first time American troops faced serious Japanese resistance from an amphibious assault.
The landing was a disaster. Low tide prevented the crafts from getting to the beach. Marines tried to swim to shore and drowned.
According to a military record, “Tolson’s unit, Company F had not been able to advance on the beach and experienced heavy machine gun fire at their landing location and were pinned down near the water’s edge. Company F incurred major casualties. At some point during Company F’s fight on November 20, PFC Tolson was killed in action.”
In the 76-hour battle for Tarawa, which the Americans won, more than a thousand Marines were killed. Naval Seabees buried the dead in more than 40 isolated graves and cemeteries. Tolson’s casualty card listed him buried, but did not provide a location.
He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, American Defense Service Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, ribbons and awards for Combat Action, Presidential Unit Citation and the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal.
In the years after the war, the Army’s Quartermaster Corps made several attempts to recover and identify bodies buried on Tarawa, but on Oct. 7, 1949, the search team declared “PFC Tolson’s remains to be non-recoverable.”
Home at last
About a year ago, a niece of Kliginsmith got a phone call from the DPAA.
They wanted a DNA sample.
Seems a resident on Tarawa had begun construction of a carport at his home and found a trench dug by Seabees. That’s where Tolson’s dog tags were found.
“And his Marine ring — stone still in it,” Kliginsmith said.
The remains were exhumed and sent to a lab in Hawaii. On Sept. 18, they were positively identified as Donald Tolson’s. The dog tags and ring were sent to Tolson’s family in Missouri.
Tolson’s were not the only remains found in the trench.
“In the throes of battle there were a lot of hasty burials because the U.S. still had a war to win,” said DPAA spokesperson Chuck Prichard. “Some were moved and removed and removed again. That’s why this effort continues.”
Today, nearly 73,000 service members from World War II, including 452 on Tarawa, remain unaccounted for, Prichard said. The DPAA partners with a group called History Flight for the ongoing search.
Locating remains is important to families, even as in Tolson’s case, when there is nobody left to remember him.
“Because they’ve heard the stories,” Prichard said. “They’ve heard him mentioned at Christmases and birthdays. It is a sense of loss that permeates generations.”
In 1977, during a trip to Hawaii, Kliginsmith found her cousin’s name on a wall of the Courts of the Missing in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, having no idea that 40 years later, she would be planning his funeral.
She thinks the service on Saturday “would please my Aunt Roxy and Uncle Ora.”
He’s finally returning to Missouri, as Roxy did.
“He’s coming home to Kansas City to be placed near his mother’s grave and I know this would provide peace for his parents,” Kliginsmith said. “This week’s service gives our family closure.”
And rest, at last, for a mother’s hope.
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182
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