MAGNOLIA, Ark. — When someone you love dies in war, a flag-covered casket and 21-gun salute honor their sacrifice as the family gathers to say goodbye.
But how does it feel when you lose someone to war and don’t get that chance because the person you love never comes home?
This is the painful reality for the family of Arkansas native Captain William Earl Tatum. Earl died in the Battle of Tarawa during World War II. His body was left behind as the battle raged on.
After that, Captain Tatum became lost to history, but his family never forgot him. That’s why we’re honoring Earl and other Arkansans who paid the ultimate price…and never came home.
Inside Sue’s suitcase, the story of her Uncle Earl comes to life.
“You know, and I used to wonder, what will I do with all this stuff?,” Sue Rowe of Magnolia said.
The treasure trove tells the tale of a hero she never knew, Captain William Earl Tatum.
“I would love to have met him and known him,” Sue said.
Sue’s mother, Iva Lee, was Earl’s baby sister, and she said the pair had a deep connection, noting that, ” he and mama were always just real close.”
So, when he was killed in World War II and his remains never came home, Sue’s mother was devastated.
“You don’t have any sense of closure,” she said. “You don’t get to see them. You don’t get to say goodbye.”
“I was 11 months old when he was killed,” Sue’s brother, Ronald Earl Eddy, added. “I don’t go by that name, but I’m proud of that name.”
Ronald remembers his mama’s grief.
“I think she and her sisters never really recovered from Earl’s loss,” he said.
“I wished that he could have been identified in her lifetime, you know, I always wished that, but that wasn’t possible,” Sue said.
The boy from Stamps was a star football player at Henderson State University. After graduation, he was a high school teacher and coach.
“He coached the boys’ football, which was right up his alley,” Sue said.
But then came the surprise military strike on Pearl Harbor. Just one month later, Earl joined the Marines.
The Henderson State football star was awarded the Silver Star for his fighting spirit at Guadalcanal, the third-highest award for combat valor.
“I know he was proud,” Sue said. “I know he didn’t expect anything like that.”
Wounded twice, his hometown paper called him “quite a hero.”
“Forty hours later, he was struck in the same leg with shrapnel, and he had to give up,” Sue said.
Some of that shrapnel is in Sue’s suitcase. He and his sisters couldn’t have known that just a year later, that Silver Star would turn to gold. Letters from his sisters came back marked “Return to sender.”
Sue explained that “they were getting them back not knowing,” that Earl chose to fight in the Battle of Tarawa.
“He had been placed on essentially desk duty and volunteered,” Ronald said.
“He was on the ship,” Sue said. “He went.”
That battle lasted three days. The goal was to seize the island from the Japanese. We did it, but at a huge cost.
A letter from a friend told the sisters of their big brother’s sacrifice, killed by enemy gunfire.
“Earl was getting out of the landing boat. There was no suffering. He was killed instantly,” the letter described.
“I’ve never been in combat,” Ronald said. “I do understand that the focus is on your buddies. And I’m confident that’s why he did it.”
At Tarawa, about 1,100 United States Marines and Sailors died. Most of the bodies were moved to hasty graves.
“It was a ferocious battle,” Ronald said. “It was just really hard to identify and keep up with people.”
Eventually, some of those remains were recovered and taken to Hawaii, and to this day, more than 400 men from that battle are still unaccounted for, including Captain Tatum.
Only time and DNA will track down Earl’s remains. Sue submitted her DNA sample to the Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency nearly a decade ago.
“I was really excited about hearing something,” Sue said.
That DNA waits on a match to remains that sit in rows of boxes in a lab in Hawaii. There’s no way of knowing yet if her uncle’s remains are even there.
“You wish they could do more, and they could automatically go in there with a new DNA test on that bone and, and say, ‘That was Captain William Earl Tatum,'” Sue said.
As time passes, the family loses hope they’ll see Earl’s remains come home.
“I really have doubts that will happen,” Ronald said. “They might stumble on it.”
“I don’t think that they could identify him, but it’s possible,” Sue said.
Until then, Captain Tatum is remembered at a memorial in Honolulu.
“The servicemen and women who were killed in the Pacific have a monument,” Ronald said. “His name is there on a plaque. It made it real, you know. That he was acknowledged. That others were aware of what he had done.”
What happens when a Silver Star turns to gold and never comes home? Maybe it becomes a North Star, like it did for the family, who petition to God in a poem they wrote:
Sue recalls a childhood memory:
“Being out in the yard, playing,” Sue said. “And I thought, ‘What if Uncle Earl just walked up in our front yard one day? Wouldn’t my mother be happy?'” Sue said. “I’d love to have seen her rejoice.”
Until her uncle’s remains come home, he remains a beautiful memory, tucked away, in Sue’s suitcase.
If you’ve lost a loved one whose remains still haven’t come home from war, we’d love to hear from you and share your story. Please email Cassandra Webb with the details.
Video from the strike at Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Tarawa courtesy of the U.S. National Archives.