In July 31, 2018 photograph, Dominic Ragucci poses for a portrait in Philadelphia with a photo of his brother, Emil, who was killed in action during the second world War. Almost 70 years after Emil’s death in the South Pacific Battle of Tarawa, his remains are scheduled to return home to Philadelphia on Monday, Aug. 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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PHILADELPHIA – for nearly 70 years, Dominic Ragucci believed that the remains of his brother Emil had been swept out to sea during a World War II battle on a Pacific atoll.
But on Monday, Dominic, 86, and his brother Victor, 91, standing on a tarmac in Philadelphia to greet Emil’s remains when he came home.
Their mother, who died many years ago, had yearned for such a day. They had buried a son, who died in the war and had always hoped that Emil can be returned, too.
“My mother always had that on her mind. ‘I want my child back. I want my boy back,'” Dominic said. “For me, it seemed like a hopeless task.”
Dominic and Victor are the last survivors of an 11-sibling family.
Five brothers fought in the war and two died in less than 90 days apart. Nicholas, killed in Italy in 1944, was just after the war. Emil, who died in 1943, remained lost on the Central Pacific atoll of Tarawa, where more than 1,000 Marines were killed in a three-day battle as they stormed the beach.
In 1949, the military notified hundreds of families, including the Raguccis, that their loved ones were beyond repair, to mention as an unknown or lost at sea.
And for decades, Dominic and his brothers and sisters that they would never know for sure what happened to Emil.
But a little more than a decade ago, Dominic— who served in the army after the second world War, together with two other brothers — encounter with a veteran who had fought in Tarawa and gave him some contact information.
A support group for descendants of Tarawa veterans was useful. She explained that many men who died in the battle were buried in makeshift cemeteries and were moved without the diligent record-keeping to make room for an airport on the island, halfway between Hawaii and Australia.
But that does not necessarily mean Emil was buried on the island. Many men had washed out of the sea as they were shot to get off the boats and storming the beach.
A breakthrough came as a result of the work of History Flight Inc., a non-profit group of forensic anthropologists, archaeologists and other volunteers formed to help repatriate the remains of American soldiers missing in action.
In 2013, they found what was labeled Cemetery 33, a small plot with a few dozen sets of remains. The Ministry of Defence arranged to fly them to the forensic anthropology lab in Hawaii. Others would be found.
Over the past few years, the lab has managed to identify about one person on one day by a painstaking process that catalogues, attracts DNA, and let the bones and artifacts for each soldier, said Maj. Jessie Romero, public affairs officer. The lab works on hundreds of sets of remains the time.
Depending on the age and condition of the remains, it can be difficult to get a usable DNA sample. The samples are sent to a facility in Dover, Delaware, where they are analyzed and compared with the samples on the file of the family.
Six years ago, Dominic contacted the Marines and asked for a kit to submit his DNA. In November last year, the Marines called to say Emil’s remains had been identified in which to be found in the History of the Flight.
“I feel very much that those guys were there all the time missing and not adequately attended to,” Dominic said.
Dominic was but a boy when he opened the door for a telegram two days before Christmas in 1943. His older sister, Aurora, took the telegram and read it to his mother, Carmela, who had come to the US from Italy with her husband Nicola and a few children.
“My sister read the telegram and was shocked and screamed. And my mother just broke down,” he said.
He still has the telegram, protected by plastic.
Emil was 19 when he was sent to basic training. He Had begged his parents, and enlisted his four older brothers to convince them to sign off on his going into active service.
Dominic recalled his brother’s rattling off baseball statistics for each player from the late 1930s and 1940s. He remembered a young, handsome, teenager, well-liked in the neighborhood, who always wanted to be a Marine.
The funeral is Tuesday. Emil will be buried near his brother Nicholas and his parents. He would be 94, where he alive today.
“My father was bitter, from a political perspective. My mother was just sad, because her heart was damaged. That is always the case. … Mothers get here, they hurt here,” Dominic said, pointing to his heart.
“We were blessed in a sense. We had good parents, a family that stuck together,” he said. “It is difficult to articulate how they would feel, but I think they’d be happy.”