Though I never met Channing Robert Whitaker, his face is familiar to me. He died in combat on a tiny island in the Pacific, nearly 20 years before I was born, but I feel like I know him.
I married into the Whitaker family in 1988. I saw photos of the young Marine and heard stories about him from the siblings who mourned his untimely death and from the nieces and nephews who grew up loving their lost uncle.
My husband Larry is the son of Channing’s oldest brother, LaVern, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1969. For years Larry researched Channing’s military history through books and websites, piecing together the last moments of the young Marine’s life and hoping to discover where Channing’s remains were buried.
Many of the Tarawa dead were sent to Hawaii, but Channing’s name is on the Wall of Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. He was never there. We had to believe he was still on Betio island.
In the late 1990s, Larry contacted an organization that was searching for missing soldiers at Tarawa, but he quickly dropped his pursuit. Channing’s younger brother Neill was adamantly opposed. He wanted to leave Channing in peace.
Neill passed away in 2012.
Larry continued searching for information, periodically checking the website of the History Flight, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding soldiers missing in action. In March, Larry learned that the organization had found a previously undiscovered grave containing 31 bodies near the site of Channing’s death.
Marla Brubaker, the daughter of Channing’s sister Adeline, provided DNA to help identify Channing. He was officially accounted for May 29, 2019.
Why are we obsessed with this boy who died mere months after his 18th birthday? Perhaps it’s because he’s so young. Because he’ll never grow old. He’s been 18 for 76 years.
Perhaps it's because he lived in a time that is now foreign to us and died in unimaginable chaos on the crowded island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll. We are fascinated.
Or perhaps it’s because Channing is adored by his family. Through the stories told by his mother, his brothers and sisters, he became the favorite uncle of people he never he knew.
The son of Luther and Retta Gates Whitaker, Uncle Channing was born Aug. 17, 1925 in Granger, the seventh of 10 children.
World War II was raging during Channing’s teen years. Like his brothers LaVern, Jack, Frank and Luther, Channing wanted to join the fight. A small man, Channing didn’t meet the minimum weight requirement to join the Marines, so, according to family lore, the boy went down the street to a store, bought some bananas and ate his way into the Marine Corp.
Because he was only 17, Channing couldn’t join the service without parental consent. His mother gave it, reluctantly. Channing enlisted Dec. 14, 1942, completed training in San Diego and, in July of 1943, left for Wellington, New Zealand.
Retta went to California to visit Channing before he shipped out, something she hadn’t done with her other sons. She never saw Channing again.
In New Zealand, Channing was assigned to A Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marines, 2nd Marine Division. His unit deployed Nov. 20, 1943 as an offshore reserve during D-Day operations at Tarawa atoll.
Searching through books and combing the internet, Larry and I pieced together Channing’s final hours.
According to the book “Tarawa: A Hell of a Way to Die” by Derrick Wright, the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines under Major Jones landed on Green Beach on the northwest end of the island in LCRs (landing craft rubber). The first transport ship closed around 2 p.m. Nov. 21. The landing of 1-6 was completed about 7 p.m.
On Nov. 22, the 1-6 was supposed to pass through Ryan’s men and attack eastwards to link up with the 1-2 and the 2-2 which had a foothold on the south shore. Around 8:15 a.m., the 1-6 got under way.
Opposition was not as fierce as expected, Wright wrote, though numerous pillboxes and trenches had been stormed before Jones’ men got into visual contact with the Marine enclave on the south shore around 11 a.m.
The 1-6 passed through Maj. Wood Kyle’s men (the 1-2) with supporting tanks and cleared the entrenched Japanese, inflicting around 100 casualties, then dug in on the south shore.
Around 7:30 p.m. Nov. 22, a group of about 50 Japanese crept out of the undergrowth, Wright wrote, in an attempt to discover the size and location of American positions. Jones moved his reserves forward, and they fought hand-to-hand with the Japanese for about an hour.
Around 11 p.m., the Japanese launched another short assault, throwing grenades and firing their rifles in the general direction of the Marines while screaming loudly, but the Marines remained quiet so as not to give away their position.
About 3 a.m. Nov. 23, the Japanese began howling and making monkey noises, yelling in English phrases such as “Marines, you die!” and “Japanese drink Marine blood!” Enemy machine guns opened up and several hundred howling Japanese charged forward in a frenzied assault across the whole battalion front.
When the sun rose Nov. 23, 1943, more than 200 Japanese lay dead immediately in front of the 1-6’s positions. Jones’ men suffered 173 casualties. Channing was among the 45 dead.
In a letter dated Saturday, Feb. 19, 1944, Cpl. Herbert E. Johnson tells Channing’s mother, “I’m writing this in reply to the letter you wrote to my commanding officer, Major Jones. I’m sure I can answer your questions much easier than the major, as I was with Channing during the short time we were in combat.
“Our platoon relieved the front line about noon of the third day. About three o’clock my squad was hit hard from a Jap pill-box. The squad Channing was in came up to give us support and Channing came up just to my right. We flushed about twenty Japs out of the pill-box and I’m sure Channing got his share of those twenty for they weren’t more than thirty yards away and directly in front of us.
“We pushed on a little further and dug in for the night. Channning, his squad leader and two others were to my right about 20 yds. The Japs counter-attacked several times that night and came with in a few yds. of our lines. ...
“The next morning at dawn another company came thru our lines and pushed on to the end of the island. It was during one of the Jap counter-attacks some time after three in the morning that we lost Channing and the two that were with him. ...
“Channing did not suffer which is about all any of us ask for when it comes our time to go.
“Channing was buried the next day with the rest of our boys. A military funeral, as formal as possible under the conditions, was held for them.
“You may well be proud of your son Mrs. Whitaker as we are, for we were with him and saw him conduct himself as a true Marine.”
Retta received a letter from LaVern, who was serving in Europe, more than a month later. “1/7/44, Dear Mom: I received your sad letter today and will answer in a few spare minutes that I have. I guess that it was too much to expect for all of us to come back. It seems like Channing just had to always git himself into trouble. That was one reason I came to the Army thinking he might stay home awhile.”
Next week, the long search for Channing will come to an emotional end: Channing’s remains will return to Iowa and be interred near his parents at Glendale Cemetery in Des Moines on the 76th anniversary of his death.
Nearly 50 relatives will travel to Des Moines from all over the U.S. to marvel at the return of a boy lost for 76 years. We will no longer wonder what happened to him or where he is. He is home.