Pfc Arnold Junior Harrison was an only child from Detroit, Michigan who joined the Marines as soon as he turned 18: a Marine who stormed a South Pacific beach on his 20th birthday, his last. Now, 75 years later, in a Texas cemetery, he is finally home.
Harrison was part of the American invasion force at the Battle of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands in 1943. The three-day battle was one of the first bloody assaults in America's long march to Japan. And it was one of the first of many costly American victories. Nearly 1,000 Americans were killed. Buried first in temporary graves the bodies were moved years later to cemeteries in Hawaii. But by then, with the technology available at the time, the military was unable to tell exactly whose graves were whose.
But with continuous work by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, Harrison's remains were identified late last year. And the search for family led to Sachse, Texas, and John Welnack Sr., 88, his cousin and closest living relative. Which is why a Marine from Detroit, Michigan finally came home to Texas to the only family who still remembers his name and the price he paid.
"He tried to join the Marines when he was 17," Welnack said of his cousin. "Anybody that would sacrifice their own life for their country, or other people, in my thinking is a hero."
Honoring a hero is why the North Texas Patriot Guard Riders, and a Dallas Police motorcycle detail escorted the Marine's casket when his remains arrived at DFW Airport on Thursday and were taken to a funeral home in Sachse.
The same motorcade gave him a hero's escort again on Friday when his body was taken to its final resting place at DFW National Cemetery. Other members of the Harrison/Welnack family are also buried there, so his extended family found it fitting that he be buried there.
According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, 961 American servicemen died in the primary attack on Tarawa. As of today, 470 of those are not accounted for. So when one more, like Arnold Harrison, is found, identified, and brought home, their return is worth all the honor that grateful survivors can muster.
"We're talking about a 20-year-old man that actually gave up his life, on his birthday his 20th birthday, for this country, in defense of this country. And that's a powerful thing," said John Bartis of the North Texas Patriot Guard.
"The sheer honor that our people serve with and the respect they have for their brethren, it's just absolutely amazing," said John Welnack Jr, Harrison's second cousin. "We need to pay tribute and honor to Harrison's sacrifice because he is an American hero. And that's a place where he'll be back. He'll be reunited with family."
Welnack Jr. never knew his second cousin. He only knew the stories of an only child whose parents never knew exactly where he’d been buried. Today, this distant relative likes to believe they will now.
"I feel like they will know we've done something to finally complete that mission for them, you know, to bring him home."
A long journey home, with tens of thousands more waiting for the same.