Seventy-six years after he was killed in hand-to-hand combat and was lost to the fog of war, the remains of U.S. Marine Pfc. Joseph Robert Livermore are finally coming home to Bakersfield.
Although his arrival has been long-delayed, the East Bakersfield High graduate is sure to be greeted by the love of his family and the gratitude and respect of his hometown.
"My uncle coming home, it feels like it's tying everything together," Darrell Feliz, Livermore's 67-year-old nephew, said at his Bakersfield home Friday as he looked through old photos and documents connected to his uncle's military service and the identification of his remains.
"It makes me feel more like family," he said, "in touch with a past we never knew about."
Livermore, an East Bakersfield High School football player, was 19 when he enlisted in the Marines just days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was only 21 when he was killed by an enemy bayonet, fighting in hand-to-hand combat on the heavily fortified, Japanese-held island of Betio.
According to a presidential unit citation awarded to the Second Marine Division and related units "for outstanding performance in combat during the seizure and occupation of the Japanese-held Atoll of Tarawa" in late November 1943, the amphibious landing by some 18,000 Marines went horribly wrong.
And yet they prevailed.
"Forced by treacherous coral reefs to disembark from their landing craft hundreds of yards off the beach, the Second Marine Division (Reinforced) became a highly vulnerable target for devastating Japanese fire," the citation reads.
"Dauntlessly advancing in spite of rapidly mounting losses," it continues, "the Marines fought a gallant battle against crushing odds, clearing the limited beachheads of snipers and machine guns, reducing powerfully fortified enemy positions and completely annihilating the fanatically determined and strongly entrenched Japanese forces."
But two days later, on Nov. 22, 1943, the young Marine was fatally wounded by an enemy's bayonet. He was buried on the island, along with nearly 1,000 other Marines.
One month later, his family who lived at 811 E. 18th St., received a brief telegram:
"Deeply regret to inform you that your son, Private Joseph R. Livermore, USMC, was killed in action in the performance of his duty and in the service of his country ..."
His mother, Dorothy Livermore and his older sister, Evelyn Elizabeth, were the only two in the immediate family there to mourn him. Joseph's father, Joseph, and sister Dorothy had preceded him in death.
After the war, when the remains of servicemen were brought home, Livermore was not among them. The location of his remains and the remains of other Marines would remain a mystery for nearly eight decades until efforts by the nongovernmental organization History Flight located a burial site.
On July 30, after more than 75 years of uncertainty, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency identified Livermore's remains. He'd been lost, but now he was found.
On his pinky finger, a ring engraved with his initials was documented in photographs. In what was left of his pocket a New Zealand sixpense coin was recovered.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Kenneth Hoffman, a spokesman for the DPAA, said in an email that more than 81,000 Americans remain missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and other conflicts.
"That is a staggering number," he said, "especially when you think about all of the family members who watched their loved one go off to war and they never returned."
Of the more than 81,000, the DPAA estimates 39,000 are recoverable.
"Last year, DPAA accounted for 203 Americans," he said, "a milestone for the agency. What that means is that 203 families now have answers after decades of uncertainty."
That pace continues. To date in fiscal year 2019, DPAA has accounted for more than 184 Americans lost in past conflicts.
It's a daunting task, one that many Americans know little about.
Darrell Feliz's daughter (and Livermore's great-niece) Tiffany Feliz said she's been trying to take it all in since the family was informed of the positive identification.
"I knew, but I didn't know," she said Friday, noting that she and other family members have been trying to digest the dozens of pages of reports and historical documents the DPAA has handed over to them.
"You learn so much so quickly," she said.
The details of Livermore's return home are still sketchy, but on Nov. 14, his remains are expected to be flown, with full military escort and honors, from DPAA in Hawaii to Los Angeles International Airport. From there he will be carried by hearse to Union Cemetery in Bakersfield, escorted by Patriot Guard Riders and very likely, the California Highway Patrol, said Marc Sandall, who among others is helping to organize the community response.
A military escort will not leave his side.
Sandall, a veterans advocate and supporter of local efforts to remember and memorialize those who have served, said it's important that the community gather around this family to show them that Kern County shares in both the grief of their loss and the joy of this discovery, a discovery that brings closure to an unfinished chapter of their and the city's history.
Darrell Feliz agrees. It's closure, he said, a long-delayed ending to a story, even for those who died before they could read it.
"I think about this every night before I go to sleep," he said. "It's finally an ending for my mother and her mother.
"And putting him here, in the same gravesite as my mother," he said, placing his closed hand over his heart, "that hits me right there."