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‘Find Rabbit’: Marine’s 70-year search for fallen friend finally ends with recovery of missing cemetery

Ret. Marine Col. Elwin Hart holds a trophy made in honor of Elmer “Rabbit” Mathies, Jr., a close friend he served with during World War II. Mathies died with 1,100 Marines at the Battle of Tarawa, a small Pacific island. His remains and those of approximately 36 fellow soldiers were finally recovered last year. Hart hopes to present the likeness to remaining family members if they hold a funeral.
Ret. Marine Col. Elwin Hart holds a trophy made in honor of Elmer “Rabbit” Mathies, Jr., a close friend he served with during World War II. Mathies died with 1,100 Marines at the Battle of Tarawa, a small Pacific island. His remains and those of approximately 36 fellow soldiers were finally recovered last year. Hart hopes to present the likeness to remaining family members if they hold a funeral. dperine@thenewstribune.com

Elwin Hart heard the crack of the Japanese sniper’s bullet that pierced the heart of one of his first friends in the Marines.

He saw Pfc. Elmer “Rabbit” Mathies Jr. fall from the lip of the dugout where they’d taken cover. Another tough Marine “cried like a baby” when they realized Mathies had no pulse.

And for three days, Mathies’ body lay just a few feet from the protected pit where Hart relayed messages among Marines battling entrenched Japanese troops on the Central Pacific atoll of Tarawa in November 1943.

Yet for more than 70 years, Hart could not say what became of Mathies’ body after the battle. Mathies’ gravesite was among many lost to time and declared “unrecoverable” by the Defense Department.

“Find Rabbit,” Hart, now 90 and living in Federal Way, wrote in appeal to fellow former Marines last year.

Someone did.

Mathies is believed to be one of 40 or so Marines recovered on Tarawa last summer by a nonprofit group called History Flight that works to recover the remains of military service members killed overseas.

They were found just about the same time that Hart wrote his “Find Rabbit” message to the 2nd Marine Division Association.

Today, more than 73,000 Americans are unaccounted for from World War II. History Flight augments the Pentagon’s own recovery efforts.

It spent a decade searching for lost cemeteries that were hastily filled after the battle of Tarawa. History Flight found the one that likely contained Mathies under a parking lot.

Bring them all back. Bring them back to their families. Let their families know he’s home, he’s not lost at sea.

Retired Col. Elwin Hart

One of the bodies it uncovered there was Lt. Alexander Bonnyman, a Marine from Tennessee who posthumously received a Medal of Honor for the heroism he showed in the battle.

Mathies’ sister is awaiting a final identification. Honor Flight recovered Mathies’ dog tags, and dental records appear to match the remains.

“I’m very hopeful because I am the last remaining person of the family who knew him,” said Mathies’ younger sister, Mary Jo Hopson, 85, of Plano, Texas. “I think it would be very nice, very honorable if I could bring Elmer Jr. back.”

Hart has followed the findings closely.

Tarawa was the second of two bloody Pacific battles he experienced in the early days of what became a 33-year-career in the Marines. He was an 18-year-old noncommissioned officer at the time.

In September, Hart attended a special funeral for Bonnyman in Knoxville, Tennessee.

He bought a brand-new dress uniform in anticipation of the service he expects to attend for his old friend Mathies.

“We’ve been looking for Rabbit because he was personal to me. He was in my unit,” Hart said.

Hart has also been in touch with Hopson over the years, reaching out to describe what her brother was like in the Marines and to keep her updated on the military’s efforts to find him.

She said she had given up hope that she’d bring her brother home a little more than a decade ago, when she requested a military headstone. She placed it between her parents’ graves in Texas.

“I just wish my parents could still be alive,” she said.

More than 73,000 Americans killed in World War II remain unaccounted for. The Defense Department has an office that searches for them.

Hart and Mathies had quite a bit in common. They both found ways to enlist before the age of 18.

Hart had graduated from high school at age 15 and cajoled a recruiter into letting him in. Hart thinks the recruiter must have been trying to meet a monthly enlistment quota. Mathies joined at 17 with help from his parents, Elmer Sr. and Eunice.

Hart and Mathies served together in American Samoa just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Later, they fought in Guadalcanal and enjoyed a 10-month stint in New Zealand where they trained for the Marines’ Pacific campaign.

Hart rose swiftly through the ranks in a Marine signal unit under the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. Mathies seemed to be his own worst enemy when it came to promotions.

“He was always in a little bit of trouble. Everyone liked him. He always had a smile, always pulling a trick on someone,” Hart said.

At Tarawa, landing boats dropped them in the Pacific hundreds of yards from the shore. Hart remembered salt water reaching his chin as he bounded through waves with bullets coming and mortars falling.

They found safety in a Japanese mortar pit and began running communications between Marines on land and commanders in ships at sea. Mathies was sitting on the edge of the dugout when the sniper felled him.

More than 1,200 Marines died in three days at Tarawa. That’s about half the number of fatal casualties the military has counted in Afghanistan over the past 15 years.

The Mathies family wouldn’t learn of the Marine’s death until a month after the battle. They received a telegram on Christmas Eve 1943, telling them Elmer Jr. was missing in action.

“That’s how they let you know,” Hopson said about the telegram. “Mother and dad, they were very strong people. I can remember that we had friends that came in, and they just went back to work the next day.

“Although it was our loss, there were many families that had the same horrible loss,” she said.

Hart’s long career in the Marines would take him to the Korean War and to Vietnam. He capped his service as a colonel on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

Later, he’d work in Pierce County law enforcement, including a five-month stint as sheriff in 1979.

He’s been recounting some of his old Marine stories recently, particularly since his wife of 63 years, Gladys, passed away in 2008. He joined a writing group at the Village Green retirement community in Federal Way and wound up putting together a self-published memoir called “Did I Do Enough?”

It includes a chapter on Tarawa and more about his life with Gladys.

“I was writing, and it did help me through the funk I was in, to say that’s in the past,” he said.

Hart remarried in 2012. He and his wife Nancy both lost spouses to Alzheimer’s, and both had raised adopted children.

“You guys don’t know how lucky it is if you get to be 90 years, you meet a woman like this, and she agrees to marry you,” Hart said.

Nancy has been recording veterans’ stories at Village Green. They’re both looking forward to paying their respects to Mathies soon at a service with Hopson.

“Bring him back. Bring them all back. Bring them back to their families. Let their families know he’s home, he’s not lost at sea,” Hart said.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646, @TNTMilitary

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