Minden woman finds closure after Marine father’s remains discovered
Jerilyn Heise never met her father — up until two months ago.
It started with an unexpected phone call from the Marine Corps to schedule a visit at her home in Minden.
“They recovered his remains from an unmarked cemetery on Betio Island of Tarawa,” she said. “His remains were found with 34 others, which they have been trying to recover for years.”
Heise was 15 months old when her father died; it took 74 years to find the skeletal remains of 2nd Lt. George Stanley Bussa, a Chicago native.
He died at age 39 in the line of duty Nov. 20, 1943, during Battle of Tarawa — on the first of the three-day battle attempting to secure the island against Japanese resistance.
The Japanese were eradicated over the course of the intense fight, which killed 1,000 U.S. Marines and sailors, and left more than 2,000 wounded.
Following the end of World War II, no remains were discovered at Betio except for an unmarked cemetery and monument, honoring Bussa and men whom died in action.
But in June 2015, History Flight, Inc.—a non-profit organization dedicated to finding the remains of lost soldiers — unearthed a burial trench in the cemetery where Bussa was buried, along with 34 other Marines.
His remains were turned over to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which then contacted Heise about the discovery.
“I was shocked when I was notified,” she said. “But I feel very fortunate because there are still missing remains from the battle in the sea.”
Bussa’s remains would have not been claimed if it weren’t for Heise’s cousin, who participated in DNA testing through History Flight. The organization also was able to identify Bussa, as it recovered his right lower leg bone, jawbone, and some teeth.
According to his anthropology analysis, Bussa may have died from high velocity blunt force trauma. His death also was noted in the book “Bloody Tarawa” by Eric Hammel and John E. Lane.
Heise is concerned not many people are aware of History Flight’s purpose.
She said the DPMAA notified a family in Illinois about remains a week before it reached out to her.
“People are living on those islands and remains could be buried right in their front yards,” she said. “Not all remains returned to their homes, and families are still wondering to this day. It’s important to match up those remains to the families and it gives closure.”
Heise’s mother, Helen, didn’t tell her the story until she reached high school; in the report Heise received from the DPMAA, Helen wrote letters to the Marine Corps expressing her concerns about how she would tell her daughter how her father lost his life — but more specifically, where.
The couple married a year before she was born, on Christmas Day, 1941, in Los Angeles.
“The mystery might have bothered my mother throughout the years,” Heise said. “I didn’t ask her enough questions and I should have. The only father I knew was my stepfather. It’s an odd feeling.”
Originally from Southern California, Heise and her husband, John — also a veteran of the Army — moved to Minden to retire and have lived in their home for 14 years.
Now that Heise finally met her father through a report, it’s time to officially lay him to rest with his Purple Heart and Silver Star.
A funeral is set for Oct. 10 at Arlington National Cemetery, where Heise and her family will say goodbye.
“My mom would’ve been so pleased about the discovery,” she said. “It’s going to hit me at the funeral. He’s here and he’s home.”