The family of Pfc. John F. Prince thought his body had been lost at sea 72 years ago, and they had never had given him a proper funeral.
He’s home now, brought back by History Flight, a nonprofit that recovers and returns the remains of missing service members.
History Flight found Prince’s remains in June 2015, buried in a sandy parking lot in Betio, a tiny island in the Gilbert Islands atoll.
When Prince’s family learned that he’d been found, they thought, “this is somebody making up a story,” said Prince’s niece Margaret Getzoff, 63, of Riverdale, the Bronx.
Prince and much of his World War II battalion had been lost when development turned their burial site into a parking lot, his family was told.
Prince had fought and died on Nov. 20, 1943, the first day of the Battle of Tarawa. Prince’s company made an amphibious landing that day on Betio, marking the United States’ largest offensive operation in the region to that point. What followed was a brutal, 76-hour struggle to take control of the strategically important ground from Japanese forces.
Once the fighting ended, more than 1,000 American soldiers, including Prince, were buried in a number of makeshift graveyards scattered about the island, according to History Flight.
His family had assumed Prince “was shot in the water” with no chance of recovery, said his niece Lorraine Ryan, 55, of Floral Park. A military board had confirmed as much. Military efforts to recover the bodies after the war failed to find Prince and he was declared “nonrecoverable” in 1949.
The History Flight team worked for eight years to locate and recover the bodies they knew had been left behind after the battle, said Mark Noah, the nonprofit’s director and founder.
The team used cartography, ground-penetrating radar and a cadaver dog, as well as testimony from a local construction worker who stumbled upon a body, to locate Prince and at least 40 other Marines.
“It’s a nice ending to a terrible story,” Noah said.
Prince grew up in Bellerose, playing baseball and leading a group of neighborhood kids, said Ned Hudson, 90, of Dennis, Massachusetts, who knew Prince as a boy. “He was a better kind of individual than most,” Hudson said.
Only 19 years old when he died fighting in Betio, Prince’s family rarely talked about him because it was too painful, Getzoff said.
“The fact that all these years he was buried, that helped my feelings,” Getzoff said. Other members of her family, though, “never had that comfort” because they died before learning where Prince’s remains were.
The Betio soil had preserved the remains, his skeleton almost completely intact as well as Prince’s belt and a rosary in his pocket, Getzoff said.
Scientists at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency identified him through dental records and other “circumstantial and material evidence,” according to an agency news release. Prince’s body was returned to New York on Wednesday and he received the traditional military “ramp ceremony” at LaGuardia Airport.
“There really are no words,” said Ryan, who attended the airport ceremony. “I can kind of hear my dad, kind of a stoic, saying, ‘Don’t make such a big thing about it,’ but you have to.”
Prince will be buried Friday in Calverton National Cemetery, where his only brother, Richard Prince, was interred in 2014.
Members of the American Legion and John F. Prince VFW Post in Bellerose will attend, said Prince’s nephew-in-law Ken Stoll of Omaha, who will be at the burial.
“You don’t think about looking forward to a funeral service,” Stoll said. “But when you think about it, it’s really a homecoming.”