Larry Paleno, of Kings Park, speaks about visiting a cave in Okinawa after volunteers may have found his uncle's remains after an excavation.  Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Fragments of bone and teeth found this summer in an Okinawan cave could belong to a Marine killed in World War II, authorities say, and his nephew — a Kings Park man — wants them buried in Long Island soil.

"The man's been gone 77 years. We'd like to see him come home," said Larry Paleno, 61, whose uncle Marine Pfc. John Bernard Quinn Jr. was 19 when he was killed by Japanese soldiers on June 29, 1945, after the Battle of Okinawa. 

Quinn's remains were deemed "nonrecoverable" after failed postwar searches in the 1940s and 1950s, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which locates and identifies the bodies of missing military personnel. But in September, volunteers from the nongovernmental organization Kuentai-USA told Paleno and Japanese and American authorities they had found remains believed to be that of Quinn's on the outskirts of the Okinawan city of Itoman. Kuentai-USA, which works to repatriate remains of WWII American service members from the Pacific Theater, said some of the remains could also belong to a second Marine, Pvt. John Hartman. 

Kuentai-USA secretary general Yukari Akatsuka told Newsday the case was circumstantial but strong: in three digs between April and September, volunteers found artifacts including one of Quinn's dog tags and the sole of an American-made boot near the remains. They also found a Marine Corps ring and a 1926 American quarter. Paleno's family told the group the coin "was manufactured the year Quinn was born and that his parents had given it to him to carry as a good-luck charm," Akatsuka said in an email. 

The Defense agency responded cautiously but positively. "We are working with the U.S. Consulate on Okinawa to gain access to the remains for examination," director Kelly McKeague wrote in a Sept. 23 letter to Paleno that he shared with Newsday. If initial testing shows the remains are likely American, the agency will request repatriation for DNA testing, McKeague said, calling the work "a sacred obligation." He did not give a timeline. Anna Dan, a spokeswoman for the consulate general of Japan in New York, said in an email on Oct. 17 that Japan's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare was "working on the analysis of the remains." If the remains prove likely American, the agency will turn them over to the American government "at the earliest timing." The last repatriation was in 2016, she said, when the Japanese turned over the remains of two WWII-era American servicemen which had been recovered in Okinawa. 

According to agency records, members of Quinn's 29th Marine Regiment were looking for Japanese weapons and gear when they walked into what they thought was an empty cave. Japanese soldiers hiding there opened fire, killing Quinn. After the Marine believed to be Hartman was killed in a recovery attempt, Marines brought personnel including an interpreter to communicate with those inside the cave. When they got no response, they blew it shut with explosives, "entombing the remains" and an unknown number of Japanese soldiers. 

The Japanese defense of Okinawa relied on thousands of natural and manmade caves dug into the hilly landscape. Early searches for Quinn's remains revealed five caves near coordinates the American military had recorded for the location where Quinn was killed. They found 19 sets of Japanese skeletal remains. 

Further investigation in 2007 by the Sixth Marine Division Association and Chris Majewski, a Marine Corps civilian tour guide on Okinawa, yielded the first of Quinn's dog tags and helped narrow the search area.

Okinawan caves may hide the remains of hundreds of WWII-era American service members, Akatsuka said. "There is no reason to leave those who died in the war behind." 

One of the group's volunteers, U.S. Air Force Airman Lukas Maschmeier of Shepherdstown, West Virginia, found what appeared to be an American boot sole near the start of the dig in early September. 

Volunteers continued to dig near the sole. About 30 feet to the left of the cave entrance, Airmen Matt McGee of Chesapeake, Virginia, and Collin Brady of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, uncovered Quinn's second dog tag. "I scraped the dirt off with my gloves," McGee recalled. "It seemed too easy, after all these missions. … You could make out Quinn, his name, service number.” 

Volunteers filled four ziplock bags with human remains. 

Kuentai contacted Paleno, who arrived at the cave early Sept. 10. A dozen Japanese television reporters attended and shot footage of him filling sandbags with excavated dirt, he said.

Paleno crawled through the entrance into a space so big he could stand. The volunteers led him through the darkness to the site where they had found the artifacts. Maschmeier watched him closely: "It felt like he was going through every human emotion." 

Recalling that moment, Paleno, a retired union electrician, told Newsday he had been thinking of his uncle. "I knew this was his last walk," he said. "We had lights, but it was pitch black." He wondered about his teenage uncle, at the tail end of a vicious battle 77 years ago: "To actually go inside — what the hell was he doing?" 

The dig finished and an American military chaplain blessed the remains. Paleno flew home with the dog tag, ring and coin wrapped in a handkerchief in a small wooden box. 

He spoke with his aunt and uncle, Quinn’s only surviving siblings: Audrey Ponzio, 87, of New Springville, Staten Island, and Gerald Quinn, 85, of Monroe, New Jersey.

They are the last of an East Flatbush, Brooklyn, family of nine. They told Newsday the brother they lost to war was a natural leader, who, before he enlisted, helped support the family with his earnings.

His death left a hole. "To this day, if I close my eyes, I can hear my mother" scream at the news, Ponzio said. She and Gerald Quinn feel "blessed" to be alive for what they hope will be the return of their brother's remains, she said. 

Quinn's parents and another brother are buried at St. Charles Cemetery in East Farmingdale and three sisters are buried at Pinelawn Memorial Park. If the remains are identified as Quinn's, the family wants him buried at one of those cemeteries, Paleno said.

"He was just a kid," he said. "He should be buried with his family."

Fragments of bone and teeth found this summer in an Okinawan cave could belong to a Marine killed in World War II, authorities say, and his nephew — a Kings Park man — wants them buried in Long Island soil.

"The man's been gone 77 years. We'd like to see him come home," said Larry Paleno, 61, whose uncle Marine Pfc. John Bernard Quinn Jr. was 19 when he was killed by Japanese soldiers on June 29, 1945, after the Battle of Okinawa. 

Pfc. John Bernard Quinn Jr.'s siblings say the brother they...

Pfc. John Bernard Quinn Jr.'s siblings say the brother they lost to war was a natural leader, who, before he enlisted, helped support the family with his earnings. If the remains are identified as Quinn's, the family wants him to be buried at a cemetery on Long Island. his nephew Larry Paleno said. Credit: Alejandra Villa Loarca

Quinn's remains were deemed "nonrecoverable" after failed postwar searches in the 1940s and 1950s, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which locates and identifies the bodies of missing military personnel. But in September, volunteers from the nongovernmental organization Kuentai-USA told Paleno and Japanese and American authorities they had found remains believed to be that of Quinn's on the outskirts of the Okinawan city of Itoman. Kuentai-USA, which works to repatriate remains of WWII American service members from the Pacific Theater, said some of the remains could also belong to a second Marine, Pvt. John Hartman. 

A Marine Corps ring, along with the coin, the boot sole...

A Marine Corps ring, along with the coin, the boot sole and the second of Quinn’s dog tags, were found near fragments of bone and teeth in an Okinawan cave. Credit: Alejandra Villa Loarca

Kuentai-USA secretary general Yukari Akatsuka told Newsday the case was circumstantial but strong: in three digs between April and September, volunteers found artifacts including one of Quinn's dog tags and the sole of an American-made boot near the remains. They also found a Marine Corps ring and a 1926 American quarter. Paleno's family told the group the coin "was manufactured the year Quinn was born and that his parents had given it to him to carry as a good-luck charm," Akatsuka said in an email. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • There are 55,000 missing U.S. service members in the Indo-Pacific region.
  • Nearly 80 years after the Battle of Okinawa, 205 U.S. service members are still unaccounted for.
  • The last Defense Department identification of a service member lost in Okinawa was in 2018.

The Defense agency responded cautiously but positively. "We are working with the U.S. Consulate on Okinawa to gain access to the remains for examination," director Kelly McKeague wrote in a Sept. 23 letter to Paleno that he shared with Newsday. If initial testing shows the remains are likely American, the agency will request repatriation for DNA testing, McKeague said, calling the work "a sacred obligation." He did not give a timeline. Anna Dan, a spokeswoman for the consulate general of Japan in New York, said in an email on Oct. 17 that Japan's Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare was "working on the analysis of the remains." If the remains prove likely American, the agency will turn them over to the American government "at the earliest timing." The last repatriation was in 2016, she said, when the Japanese turned over the remains of two WWII-era American servicemen which had been recovered in Okinawa. 

According to agency records, members of Quinn's 29th Marine Regiment were looking for Japanese weapons and gear when they walked into what they thought was an empty cave. Japanese soldiers hiding there opened fire, killing Quinn. After the Marine believed to be Hartman was killed in a recovery attempt, Marines brought personnel including an interpreter to communicate with those inside the cave. When they got no response, they blew it shut with explosives, "entombing the remains" and an unknown number of Japanese soldiers. 

The Japanese defense of Okinawa relied on thousands of natural and manmade caves dug into the hilly landscape. Early searches for Quinn's remains revealed five caves near coordinates the American military had recorded for the location where Quinn was killed. They found 19 sets of Japanese skeletal remains. 

A dog tag bearing the name of Marine Pfc. John...

A dog tag bearing the name of Marine Pfc. John Bernard Quinn Jr. An excavation in 2007 yielded the first of Quinn's dog tags. Credit: Alejandra Villa Loarca

Further investigation in 2007 by the Sixth Marine Division Association and Chris Majewski, a Marine Corps civilian tour guide on Okinawa, yielded the first of Quinn's dog tags and helped narrow the search area.

Okinawan caves may hide the remains of hundreds of WWII-era American service members, Akatsuka said. "There is no reason to leave those who died in the war behind." 

An American boot sole was among artifacts found during a September...

An American boot sole was among artifacts found during a September dig. Credit: Alejandra Villa Loarca

One of the group's volunteers, U.S. Air Force Airman Lukas Maschmeier of Shepherdstown, West Virginia, found what appeared to be an American boot sole near the start of the dig in early September. 

Volunteers continued to dig near the sole. About 30 feet to the left of the cave entrance, Airmen Matt McGee of Chesapeake, Virginia, and Collin Brady of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, uncovered Quinn's second dog tag. "I scraped the dirt off with my gloves," McGee recalled. "It seemed too easy, after all these missions. … You could make out Quinn, his name, service number.” 

Volunteers filled four ziplock bags with human remains. 

Kuentai contacted Paleno, who arrived at the cave early Sept. 10. A dozen Japanese television reporters attended and shot footage of him filling sandbags with excavated dirt, he said.

Paleno crawled through the entrance into a space so big he could stand. The volunteers led him through the darkness to the site where they had found the artifacts. Maschmeier watched him closely: "It felt like he was going through every human emotion." 

Recalling that moment, Paleno, a retired union electrician, told Newsday he had been thinking of his uncle. "I knew this was his last walk," he said. "We had lights, but it was pitch black." He wondered about his teenage uncle, at the tail end of a vicious battle 77 years ago: "To actually go inside — what the hell was he doing?" 

The dig finished and an American military chaplain blessed the remains. Paleno flew home with the dog tag, ring and coin wrapped in a handkerchief in a small wooden box. 

He spoke with his aunt and uncle, Quinn’s only surviving siblings: Audrey Ponzio, 87, of New Springville, Staten Island, and Gerald Quinn, 85, of Monroe, New Jersey.

They are the last of an East Flatbush, Brooklyn, family of nine. They told Newsday the brother they lost to war was a natural leader, who, before he enlisted, helped support the family with his earnings.

His death left a hole. "To this day, if I close my eyes, I can hear my mother" scream at the news, Ponzio said. She and Gerald Quinn feel "blessed" to be alive for what they hope will be the return of their brother's remains, she said. 

Quinn's parents and another brother are buried at St. Charles Cemetery in East Farmingdale and three sisters are buried at Pinelawn Memorial Park. If the remains are identified as Quinn's, the family wants him buried at one of those cemeteries, Paleno said.

"He was just a kid," he said. "He should be buried with his family."

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