For the family of Pfc. John Saini, the wait that began with a telegram in 1943 and stretched through the decades is over.
“It’s a relief to have my uncle finally home,” said his nephew, also named John Saini, after being presented with the remains at a brief ceremony at San Francisco International Airport attended by 17 members of the Saini family of Healdsburg. “This is a day my grandparents wanted but never lived to see.”
Pfc. John Saini was a 20-year-old soldier and a recent graduate of Healdsburg High School when U.S. forces stormed the Tarawa Atoll, about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii, in November 1943. He was one of more than 1,000 U.S. troops killed as the Americans drove the Japanese from the islands. After the battle was over, however, the military couldn’t find his grave.
There the matter stood until last year, when a team of volunteer searchers from History Flight, a Florida charity that attempts to find the unmarked graves of American warriors, heard a bark from an aging Labrador Retriever named Buster, a cadaver dog, during their search of the Tarawa battle zone.
The dog had come across an unmarked trench that an electronic scan revealed to be the final resting place of four dozen servicemen. It was not far from the lagoon where the bloodiest part of the landing battle was waged. Military investigators confirmed that one of the servicemen was Saini.
On Friday, his body was flown from Hawaii to San Francisco, where the family was reunited in a brief ceremony by the side of the plane.
None of the family members at the airport had ever met Saini, but all knew his story. His niece Liz McDowell fought back tears as she recalled how her grandparents never seemed to be the same after receiving that telegram from the military, saying their son was presumed dead.
“This is stirring emotions that I can’t even describe,” she said, leaning on a cousin for support. “There wasn’t a lot said about this in our family. But we felt it.”
Saini’s remains will be reburied on Saturday at Oak Mound Cemetery in Healdsburg next to those of his parents.
Mark Noah is founder of History Flight, which has identified the remains of 100 servicemen in Europe and Asia over the past 13 years. He said the group strives to “give the identity and the dignity back” to the families.
“Every time you do it, it’s like putting a little piece of America back in America,” Noah said.
Valentina Saini, the 2-year-old great-great niece of the fallen Marine, held a small U.S. flag on a stick by the side of the plane in San Francisco and stood as quietly as a 2-year-old girl can stand. But she did ask her elders, over and over, why her great-great uncle had to die.
“You never have an answer for that,” John Saini said.