Sgt. Donald D. Stoddard’s parents bought a grave for their son after his body went missing during World War II. Seventy-seven years later, an audience of hundreds, none of who ever knew him, witnessed his burial.
“His parents had so much faith in our country that they actually reserved a plot and headstone for him all those years ago, knowing that knew he would be brought home to be buried here next to them,” said retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. William F. Mullen III, a keynote speaker at Stoddard’s funeral.
Stoddard, who died during the siege of Betio Island in November 1943 while assigned to 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, was put to rest at Mountain View Memorial Park in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado, on June 26.
To pay respect to a fallen brother-in-arms, Marines from 1/6 flew out from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to lay customary French Fourragere decorations across his casket, a tradition for 1/6. The French government awarded the green braided rope for 1/6‘s efforts in World War I, which is worn by every Marine who joins the unit.
“Being a Marine is already a brotherhood, and then add to that being in the infantry, then the community just gets smaller— 1/6 alone is a family within itself,” said U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Ryan Jaskulka, a platoon sergeant with 1/6 who attended the funeral. “To be able to give him the honors he deserves after this many years, it’s humbling.”
Since World War II, the remains of service members have gradually been found and returned to their families, but Stoddard wasn’t recovered until March 2019 by the non-profit organization History Flight.
According to Aundrea Thompson, a forensic archaeologist with History Flight, the non-profit was able to locate Stoddard’s burial site after flying three veterans who fought in Tarawa to the battle site to give the group’s members a tour of where exactly the fighting happened, as well as to discover burial sites.
“This specific area was untouched because there was a building above it,” Thompson said. “But then the building collapsed, and so we said, ‘now’s our chance to get in there and dig.’ It was preserved well because of the building.”
She said they finally discovered the site, named Cemetery 33, which holds more than 30 Marine bodies, when someone was shoveling and tapped on human remains. Thompson said the process of discovering remains is an emotional and notably intimate experience.
“It’s strange because you’re the first person to lay eyes on this person in those 75 years when you wipe that soil away and find their remains, and you take your hands and pick him up and take him out of the ground,” she said.
Once officials identified Stoddard’s remains and cleared them for flight, family members like Don McKeehan, Stoddard’s next of kin and oldest living nephew who never knew his uncle, received notice the plane would land June 23 into Denver International Airport.
Mckeehan said he was expecting a decent-sized service and recognition for his uncle, but the response was more than he could have ever imagined.
“Monday morning, I was contacted to be a part of a motorcade that was going to be arriving in Denver for further transport to Boulder, so one of the nephews and myself went on that motorcade,” Mckeehan said. “The route to get him to Boulder was fantastic. People on the streets, overpasses were with the fire department, police department, people just saluting him and paying him the respect I think he deserves.”
Stoddard wasn’t the only member in his family to serve in the Marine Corps. His great-great-nephew Brenden Jarvis, a former Marine dog handler, attended the funeral, but he hadn’t known his great-great-uncle served until after he had separated from the service.
“Honestly, I’m just super honored to have somebody in my family serve, especially during World War II,” Jarvis said. “Having somebody in your family who paid the ultimate sacrifice is honestly unbelievable.”
Witnessing his great-great-uncle’s funeral helped Jarvis “tie together” his feelings on what it truly means to serve.
“Being a Marine, you talk about sacrifice,” he said. “Everyone thanks you for your service and everything like that, but a moment like this lets me finally see what that sacrifice actually looks like by seeing everyone come together and welcome this hero home.”
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Story and feature image by Cpl. Chase Drayer, 2nd Marine Division