Paul and Buster look for Marines in Tarawa
It’s a Sunday, and Ida Zazzetti, the mother of United States Marine Joseph Zazzetti, arrives home from church and sits down at her desk to begin her weekly ritual of composing a letter to the U.S. government. In it she asks, as she always does, that the body of her boy be brought home.
For nearly 70 years, families of Marines who perished during the Battle of Tarawa in 1943 have clung to the motto that the U.S. “leaves no man behind.” Until now, however, Ida (who wrote every week until her death), and others like her have never seen those words put into action.
Earlier this week, on the other end of a cell phone surrounded by the chaotic background noise of a cafeteria in Washington D.C., Paul Dostie explained the intricacies of his latest project. Last February, Dostie and his cadaver dog Buster joined a research team on a trip to Tarawa to search for the remains of U.S. Marines.
You may remember Dostie and Buster from their 2008 search for missing bodies from the Manson era at Barker Ranch. Since then, the retired Mammoth Lakes Police Sergeant and his dog with the famous nose have gone on to be key players in several projects where human remains were found years after the individuals had gone missing. The largest of these is the Tarawa project.
“This is what I do,” Dostie explained. “Buster is such an asset; I want to do as much good with him as I can.”
A year and a half ago Dostie heard about Mark Noah from a colleague. Noah is the Executive Director of the non-profit organization History Flight, whose mission is to research and help locate the remains of more than 78,000 American service members still missing in action from World War II. Noah had been researching the lost Marines at Tarawa and authored the paper, “The Lost Graves of Tarawa.” He and his team had been to Tarawa in 2009 and discovered 139 of the 541 MIA soldiers that still remain on the island. Dostie volunteered his and Buster’s services to Noah and his team, and accompanied them to the atoll in February where the remaining bodies were pinpointed.
For those of you not named Bill Altaffer, Tarawa is an atoll in the central Pacific Ocean. During WWII, it was occupied by the Japanese, who were then attacked by the Americans.
“Buster can search an area quickly and alert on spots where the geophysicists can then perform a detailed search,” Dostie explained. “It would take four to five days to scan what Buster can find in five minutes.” The scientists used Ground Penetrating Radar, Magnetometer and EM-38 Mark 2 to scan the earth for human remains, Buster simply used his nose.
In order to affirm the strength of Buster’s abilities, the team put the canine and Dostie through a double blind test.
“First we took the dog to areas where we knew there weren’t any graves,” Noah explained. “Buster was accurate and did not alert. Then we took him to areas where there were graves and he identified them.” Noah explained that they did not tell Dostie where the graves were in order to ensure that he did not give any signals as Buster searched.
“Forensically the conditions were ideal for Buster,” Dostie explained. The constant 85 degree temperatures and the high humidity helped release the scents of the decaying bodies beneath the earth in a way that wouldn’t have happened in colder climates. However, searching the highly populated island wasn’t without challenges.
The combination of people, dogs, and pigs, as well as the accompanying waste that goes along with them made for distracting scents all over the island. Not to mention the attention an American dog attracted.
“We had to set up perimeters to keep the other [island] dogs from attacking Buster,” Dostie explained. “Also, all of the kids wanted to see the dog from America and would rush to the car as soon as we got out. It was like the circus had come to town.”
But all of the hard work paid off. Since the trip in February, the Tarawa team has continued working with Congressmen to map out the details to finally bring these soldiers home.
Considered to be one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history, the Battle of Tarawa began on Nov. 20, 1943 and ended three days later with approximately 6,000 people dead. Only a handful of the 4,700 Japanese soldiers on the island survived, but the Marine casualties also surpassed expectations at more than 1,000.
According to www.eyewitnesstohistory.com, “The largest of Tarawa’s islets is Betio measuring less than 3 miles in length and 1/2 mile in width. Here, the Japanese built an airstrip defended by 4,700 troops dug into a labyrinth of pillboxes and bunkers interconnected by tunnels and defended by wire and mines. The task of dislodging this force fell to the Marines of the 2nd Division.”
Tarawa is surrounded by coral reefs, which made it impossible for U.S. ships landing in the attack to reach the shore. Marines were dispatched into the water and had to wade to land. The Japanese already onshore took no mercy on the soldiers and opened fire on them as they made their slow procession through the deep waters.
Due to the unexpectedly large number of fallen Marines and the urgency to continue fighting the war, the bodies were placed in mass trench graves that were expected to be temporary. However, Seabees (the Construction Battalion of the U.S. Navy) were soon directed to reconstruct the airstrip so that it could be used to land American aircraft. In their efforts to clean and clear the island, the Seabees plowed over the mass graves, destroying the markers and displacing bodies. Later, memorial cemeteries were rebuilt on the island to recognize the fallen soldiers, but the markers were purely symbolic and did not actually have bodies beneath them.
Over the years, as the island has been developed, remains from that bloody battle continue to be unearthed. Even on the trip in February, Dostie claimed that Buster was alerting on the floors of people’s homes where bodies of the fallen soldiers had ended up throughout the years.
Congressman Dan Lipinski and most recently Congressman Buck McKeon, who is Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in conjunction with the Department of Defense are supporting efforts to bring these soldiers home where they will be identified by DNA and dental records. Many of them were buried in their gear and may even still be wearing identifying tags, Dostie said.
If all goes as planned, Zazzetti family members, and others like them, may finally get some closure, and Ida may finally be able to rest in peace.
Additional Sources: www.lipinski.house.gov; Follow Me: Quarterly Publication of the Second Marine Division; Chicago Sun Times