Barbara Howard: The first Marine from Springfield killed during World War II was finally laid to rest today.
Private First Class Francis Drake Jr. was killed in action at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in October of 1942. He was 20 years old.
WGBH Radio's Arun Rath was at Drake's memorial service and he's with us on the line. Hi Arun.
Howard: Arun, why did it take 75 years for Private Drake's remains to return home? Was he missing in action?
Rath: No, he was not technically missing in action. He was killed in battle in Guadalcanal in 1942, and it was known what happened. It was known, there were witnesses to him being killed in battle. What happened was he was buried there in the field, where the battle took place. And in the chaos of the battle, they lost track of where his body was, and later on after the fighting, the government declared that his body was unrecoverable.
Howard: What do we know about how he died?
Rath: We do actually know some detail. We know that he died attempting to rescue a fallen comrade. We know that the story is that there was another Marine who had been felled by enemy fire, by Japanese fire, and Private Drake picked up this soldier on his back. And the story sounds dramatic, because everyone keeps talking about how he was not a large man — he was 5-foot 5 inches tall.
But this Marine, with all of his gear on, picked this other marine up on his back, carried him through water, up a ridge. And then, tragically, Private Drake was himself gunned down by Japanese fire. He actually was decorated with a Silver Star posthumously for that incredible act of heroism.
Howard: It's been what, 70 years? So how, after all these years, were his remains found?
Rath: It's one of those strange kind of accidental stories. What had happened is a local resident, who lives now where the battle took place at Guadalcanal, he was doing some building on his property. He started digging and he found an almost completely intact set of human skeletal remains. Sure enough, eventually they found dog tags, which did identify the Marine.
Howard: I know you've been at the funeral today in Springfield. He was born in Framingham, but grew up, I understand, in Springfield. But tell us about the scene at the funeral today.
Rath: I've been to a number of these funerals and ceremonies for fallen soldiers and Marines who have been buried many, many years after their deaths. And what's amazing about them is that it could have just happened yesterday, the death. The amount of emotion, the poignancy from the family. There were services held in St. Michael's Cathedral in Springfield. Beautiful ceremony, they had a viewing and a memorial. And he was buried with full military honors with a Marine honor guard at Agawam Veterans Memorial Cemetery. They had a Marine helicopter do a big huge roaring flyover. There were people from the veterans community, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and people who just wanted to show their support because it's, you know, it's Memorial Day — it felt really poignant and appropriate to honor this man.
Howard: Well, after all these years, did any of the family at the funeral today actually know Francis Drake?
Rath: No, and you know, especially when you consider that he was so young when he died, none of the people at the services today actually knew him. But you know, he existed very much in the memory of the family. I spoke with a couple of the relatives — he has a surviving nephew, who is also named Francis Drake. And what they told me was that they were aware of him not coming home, you know, they knew that he had died, that he was a hero. They had mourned him.
I talked with Francis Drake, the nephew of Marine Corps. Private Francis Drake.
SOUND from Francis Drake's nephew
"He said in one of his letters that if anything ever happened to him that he wanted his mother to make sure he got buried on American soil. And 75 years later, it’s happening. So for those that are out there with missing Marines or any solider, don't give up. There is hope. "
Rath: And that was his wife who was there with him. Part of what he was alluding to there is the really amazing work that the Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency has been doing, you know, with these soldiers and Marines going back to World War II — and you know, obviously Korea and Vietnam. There are still thousands and thousands of unrecovered, unidentified remains that they're working on. And we hear about new identifications, you know, almost every week.
Howard: OK. Thanks so much for joining us Arun.
Rath: Thank you.
Howard: That's WGBH Radio's Arun Rath. He was at the memorial service for Marine Francis Drake Jr., killed more than 75 years ago at the World War II Battle of Guadalcanal.
Drake was the first Marine from Springfield killed during World War II.