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The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) announced today that the remains of a U.S. serviceman, unaccounted for since World War II, have been identified and are being returned to his family for burial with full military honors.
Marine Pfc. Nicholas J. Cancilla, 18, of Altoona, Pennsylvania, will be buried Nov. 7, in his hometown. In November 1943, Cancilla was assigned to Company B, 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, 2nd Marine Division, which landed against stiff Japanese resistance on the small island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands, in an attempt to secure the island. Over several days of intense fighting at Tarawa, approximately 1,000 Marines and Sailors were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded, but the Japanese were virtually annihilated. Cancilla died sometime during the first day of the battle, Nov. 20, 1943.
Despite the heavy casualties suffered by U.S. forces, military success in the battle of Tarawa was a huge victory for the U.S. military because the Gilbert Islands provided the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet a platform from which to launch assaults on the Marshall and Caroline Islands to advance their Central Pacific Campaign against Japan.
In the immediate aftermath of the fighting on Tarawa, U.S. service members who died in the battle were buried in a number of battlefield cemeteries on the island. In 1946 and 1947, the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company conducted remains recovery operations on Betio, but Cancilla’s remains were not recovered.
In June 2011, a nongovernmental organization, History Flight, Inc., notified DPAA that they discovered a burial site on Betio Island. In 2012, a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (now DPAA) team excavated the site and recovered three individual sets of remains.
To identify Cancilla’s remains, scientists from DPAA and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory used mitochondrial DNA analysis, which matched a brother, as well as circumstantial evidence and laboratory analysis, to include dental comparisons and anthropological analysis, which matched Cancilla’s records.
DPAA is appreciative to History Flight, Inc. and their partnership for this recovery mission.
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, more than 400,000 died during the war.
For additional information on the Defense Department’s mission to account for Americans who went missing while serving our country, visit the DPAA website at www.dpaa.mil, find us on social media at www.facebook.com/dodpaa or call (703) 699-1420.