Finding lost soldiers: A hero's 75-year journey home to Missouri - KCTV5

Finding lost soldiers: A hero's 75-year journey home to Missouri

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For 75 years, Private First Class Donald Tolson was presumed to be killed in action. He perished on the first day of the Battle of Tarawa on Nov. 20, 1943 alongside nearly 1,000 other casualties storming the beaches of the Japanese island. (KCTV5) For 75 years, Private First Class Donald Tolson was presumed to be killed in action. He perished on the first day of the Battle of Tarawa on Nov. 20, 1943 alongside nearly 1,000 other casualties storming the beaches of the Japanese island. (KCTV5)
LAREDO, MO (KCTV) -

A long-lost Marine is at home to rest after dying in combat decades ago. 

For 75 years, Private First Class Donald Tolson was presumed to be killed in action. He perished on the first day of the Battle of Tarawa on Nov. 20, 1943 alongside nearly 1,000 other casualties storming the beaches of the Japanese island.

It was a familiar story in Connie Cross's family. Her mother sometimes talked about her long-lost cousin. 

"He enlisted at the age of 17," Cross recalled. "He had to have his parents sign his papers."

She and her cousin, Teresa Smith, had heard about the hope Tolson's mother, Roxy Ann Tolson, had carried with her until the end of her life. Roxie Tolson had gone as far as to purchase a cemetery plot in Mt. Moriah Cemetary, praying that someday her son would be found.

"My mother would always tell me about my Aunt Roxie," Smith said. "She talked about how she just didn't know what had happened to her son."

For 75 years, Tolson's mystery went unsolved until Cross received a phone call from the Department of Defense.

"I was a little bit skeptical," she said. "I mean out of the blue someone from Quantico calls me?"

It turns out the Department of Defense had been searching for Tolsono and soldiers like him, too. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) runs a program that searches for missing soldiers, exhumes their remains, and identifies them.

Rebecca Taylor leads a project that specializes in the Battle of Tarawa.

"We made a vow to our service members that we would bring them home," Taylor said. 

Tolson had been uncovered in a hastily dug cemetery near the beach where he died. He and dozens of other soldiers had been wrapped in their ponchos and buried with their belongings. 

"We use multiple lines of evidence, dental records for a lot of soldiers from WWII," Taylor said. "We also have their chest radiographs."

Tolson had been buried with his dog tags and Marines ring. His remains were also largely intact. Comparing his clavicle to X-Rays taken upon his enlistment was all the DPAA needed to identify him. The entire process took about 18 months.

"I never even knew there was a program like that," Cross said.

Once they identified him, the Department of Defense could finally give Tolson the hero's burial he deserved.

KCTV5 News covered his arrival at Kansas City International Airport in November. Dozens of Marines, police and first responders escorted Tolson to the grave his mother had set aside for him decades before. Her prayers had finally been answered.

"It was amazing, it was moving to have people acknowledge that sacrifice," Cross recalled.

Tolson's discovery and identification brought Cross and her family the closure they had waited on for decades, bringing to light the sacrifice he and so many others made.

"A story like this lets us know that we are one," Cross said. "There is still a deep patriotism in all of us."

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