Body of Blue Island marine returns home after 73 years

- Seventy-three years after he was killed in battle on a tiny Pacific island, a south suburban marine is now back home.

The remains of 18-year-old Charles Oetjen were returned to Blue Island to be buried Saturday.

It was one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific. More than a thousand marines cut down in a matter of hours as they attacked the tiny atoll of Tarawa.

Among those leading the assault was 18-year-old private first class Charles Oetjen of south suburban Blue Island.

Oetjen died on the first day of the battle. His body was buried in a bulldozed pit with 34 of his fellow marines.

"The boys were put in their ponchos and laid to rest in these trenches. They drew a very crude map and then everybody left. And after the war they couldn't find all the burials again,” said Paul Schwimmer of Historic Flight.

Schwimmer is a member of history flight, an organization that has spent the past several years searching for and excavating the bodies of those marines. Because of those efforts, after 73 years, the remains of Charles Oetjen returned home to a hero's welcome in Blue Island.

His second cousin, Ken Oetjen, provided the DNA sample that confirmed the marine's identity.

"It's beautiful to bring a soldier home to his native town. And just look at all of these people to meet him. It's just.... if you can't get emotional about this then you're not human,” Oetjen said.

Oetjen's remains arrived at O’Hare Friday morning, and then the hearse, flanked by patriot guards and state police, wound its way back to Blue Island with more than 100 residents lining the streets and waving flags.

"It's very emotional for myself and the residents here to know that finally we're bringing one of our own home,” said Mayor Domingo Vargas.

"You get the idea that we've never forgotten. A community. We care about each other even after death. And we want to make sure that if a person has given of themself that he or she is properly honored for that,” said Blue Island resident Brad Breems.

On Saturday, Oetjen will be buried at First Evangelical Lutheran Cemetery in Alsip next to his mother and father, and other family members who likely never would have believed they'd be reunited.

FOX 32: What does it mean to the family to have him home now?

"Closure would be the only word I could think of after all these years,” said Oetjen.

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