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Lost for 73 years, John Saini, Marine killed in World War II, coming home to Healdsburg

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At last, Marine private and son of Healdsburg John Saini is coming home.

Born to an Alexander Valley grape-growing family in 1923, Saini (sigh-EE-knee) was 20 when he died early on in World War II’s deadly, three-day Battle of Tarawa. He was buried on the Pacific atoll along with more than 1,000 other Marines and sailors and more than 5,000 Japanese and Korean soldiers.

Informed of his death, his shattered immigrant parents in Healdsburg, Mike and Mary Saini, awaited word of where he was interred and how they might return his earthly remains to Sonoma County for proper, Catholic burial. It never came. Shortly after the war, the U.S. disinterred many of the Marines buried in battlefield cemeteries on Tarawa, but Saini’s grave was one that couldn’t be found.

Seven decades passed. The Healdsburg High School graduate’s parents and also his brother and sister, both of whom served in the war and came home safely, grew old and died while hoping that his grave would be located and that they could place him to rest in his hometown.

The most bittersweet of news has come to the nieces and nephews of Pfc. Saini.

Within about a week, a casket containing his remains will arrive in the Bay Area and on June 11 he’ll be buried with full military honors at Oak Mound Cemetery on Healdsburg’s Piper Street.

Saini’s remains and those of 34 other Marines were positively identified after volunteers with History Flight Inc., a nonprofit committed to finding missing World War II servicemen, located them a year ago in a trench grave on the Tarawa islet of Betio.

“It’s such a mixed bag of emotions, really,” said Healdsburg’s Liz McDowell, a niece of the Marine.

McDowell is 62 and the daughter of Saini’s younger brother, Gene, who served with the Navy in World War II and then farmed vineyards in the Alexander and Dry Creek valleys until his death in 2006.

All through McDowell’s childhood, little was said about the uncle who fell in battle 11 years before she was born.

“From what I heard, he was always a happy kid,” she said. “My dad didn’t talk about him a lot. I think it was just too hard on him.”

Growing up in Healdsburg, McDowell spent a great deal of time with her grandparents, John Saini’s parents. She remembers wondering as a girl why her grandmother never put up a Christmas tree. She rather regrets asking, more than once.

Finally her grandmother told her, “It was just too hard on me.” Mary Saini explained she’d been preparing for Christmas of 1943 when a telegram informed her and her husband that their son the Marine was killed on the Japanese-held Tarawa Atoll on the first day of the battle, Nov. 20.

The atoll is part of the Republic of Kiribati — the former Gilbert Islands — about 2,500 miles west of Hawaii.

So many things went wrong in that beach assault, the first that the U.S. launched in the central Pacific in answer to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.

Bombing raids intended to soften the Japanese defenses didn’t happen. Then, as the amphibious landing craft carrying Marines approached the shore on Betio, the tide was so low they snagged on coral reefs. Enemy fire cut down many as they waded through chest-high water. When the Marines prevailed 76 hours after the assault began, nearly 6,400 combatants lay dead or dying and thousands more were wounded. Pfc. Saini, assigned to Company H, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, 2nd Marine Division, died at the landing zone designated as Red Beach 3.

His niece McDowell grew up aware that as painful as his death was to her grandmother, it apparently took a greater toll on her grandfather. Mike Saini, whose Italian name was Michele, “just fell apart after that,” she said. “He was never really the same.”

When the Sainis were informed after the war that the Marine’s remains were unrecoverable, one member of the family did the most to advocate for a continued search and to prepare for the day the remains were discovered.

She was John Saini’s older sister, Virginia Hallin — a fellow Marine. She’d joined the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve and served in San Francisco. After the war, Hallin did what she could to press for the search for her brother’s remains. She reached out to the Marines’ POW/MIA Affairs office in Quantico, Va., and she submitted a sample of her own DNA for use in possible lab tests to confirm that recovered remains were those of John Saini.

Liz McDowell said her Aunt Virginia “never gave up on trying to find him.” It broke McDowell’s heart that there was still no word as to the whereabouts of her uncle’s grave when her aunt died early in 2014 at the age of 92.

The discovery on Betio of the 35 skeletal remains by the History Flight search and recovery team came last June 26.

Hattie Johnson, head of the Marines’ POW/MIA office, said from Corps headquarters in Virginia that over the past year, military medical examiners were able to positively identify all 35 fallen Marines.

She said the remains of Saini were identified through dental records and the DNA submitted by his sister, Virginia.

Liz McDowell said she and her brother, who also lives in Healdsburg and who was named John in tribute to their uncle, have been told the skeleton of Pfc. Saini is nearly complete, though the left arm is missing. They suspect he lost it to the injury that took his life.

The family also learned that when the Marine was buried, several personal effects were placed within the poncho in which his body was wrapped: his razor, a can of rations, a battle knife, a trenching shovel. Liz McDowell and her brother expect to receive at least a few of those possessions.

Saini’s casket is currently at Pearl Harbor. Within it, the young Marine’s remains repose in dress blues and white gloves.

A Marine will accompany the casket when it arrives at either the Oakland or San Francisco airport a few days prior to June 11. It will be moved from the airplane to a Fred Young Funeral Co. hearse, then escorted to Sonoma County by police and Marine Corps vehicles and motorcyclists with Patriot Guard and Warriors Watch.

The service on the 11th at Oak Mound Cemetery will start at 10:30 a.m.

How Pfc. Saini’s niece and her family wish all of this had happened when the Marine’s longing parents, sister and brother were still alive.

Still, McDowell said, “We’re all so thankful that it’s going to happen at all.”

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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