Healdsburg Marine John Saini brought home 73 years after World War II battle
“I can’t believe this,” Healdsburg grape grower John Saini thought aloud at midday Friday from the backseat of a limousine as it rolled beneath the second or third Highway 101 overpass bearing emergency vehicles, first responders who stood in salute and civilians who held American flags.
The Cadillac carrying Saini and his sister, Liz McDowell, closely followed a formation of police and private motorcycles, a van-load of U.S. Marines and a silver hearse.
Inside the hearse was the casket containing the remains of the siblings’ uncle, the Marine who died in a nightmarish World War II battle and for more than 70 years lay in a lost grave on a miserable speck of an island in the central Pacific.
The 65-year-old John Saini riding in the limo was named for Pfc. John Saini, who was just 20 when he perished Nov. 20, 1943, the first day of the strategically successful but historically catastrophic Battle of Tawara.
The Marine’s niece and his namesake nephew and other of the 15 members of their family who escorted his remains home from San Francisco International Airport welled up at the sight of all the well-wishers who waited for the motorcade from above or along the highway and from outside the day’s destination, the Eggen & Lance Chapel near Santa Rosa Junior College.
Niece McDowell, 62, remains heartsick that Pfc. Saini’s Italian immigrant parents and also his brother and sister didn’t live to witness the good-humored young warrior’s return for the proper burial that will happen at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Healdsburg’s Oak Mound Cemetery.
But McDowell couldn’t be more grateful to the many professionals and volunteers — and one diligent dog that didn’t live long enough to be part of Friday’s homecoming — whose efforts will allow the family to at last lay him to rest.
“We have to look at it as celebration, really,” she said.
Albeit it one long delayed.
Pfc. Saini, who was born in 1923 and grew up in an Alexander Valley winegrowing family, was one of more than 1,000 Marines and sailors who died 73 years ago in the course of just a three-day battle to take the Japanese islet of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll. When the Marines prevailed on Betio, no bigger than Santa Rosa’s Spring Lake Regional Park, more than 5,000 Japanese soldiers and Korean slave laborers also lay dead.
Saini was one of the many Marines buried hastily in battlefield graves. Shortly after the war, many of those graves were excavated and the remains moved to national or hometown cemeteries.
But some of the Tarawa graves were not found. It crushed the parents of the young Marine from Healdsburg, Mike and Mary Saini, to be notified not long before 1950 that his remains had been declared unrecoverable.
They would still be lost were it not for History Flight, Inc., the Florida-based nonprofit committed to using technology such as sub-surface remote sensing, painstaking research and tireless labor to locate and repatriate the unaccounted-for remains of Americans lost to 20th century wars.
Between 2006 and last year, searchers with History Flight spent more than 50,000 hours looking for the more than 600 Marines whose remains were left behind on Betio. The recovery mission’s volunteers include Paul Dostie, a retired Mammoth Lakes police detective sergeant and for more than a decade the handler and best friend of a human-remains detection dog, Buster.