During the morning hours of November 20, 1943, United States Naval ships approached Betio Island on the Tarawa Atoll. Betio was a stronghold for the Japanese, and gaining control of its airstrip could prove to be strategically valuable to the American advancement through the Pacific islands. Following three hours of early morning bombing and cover fire from U.S. Naval aircraft and destroyers, American soldiers prepared to make an amphibious assault on the island. This assault would be the start of a WWII battle that would last 76 hours and claim the lives of over a thousand U.S. Marines.
Fred Evert Freet was born in Gary, Indiana, on June 28, 1925. He was the second of three sons born to Carl Edward and Lucy Bell Freet. Fred was a descendant of the Native American Miami Tribe of Indiana and had spent his life in the Gary, Marion and Columbus, Indiana, areas. He enjoyed fishing, hunting, and spending time with his brothers. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, many young men were called on to serve their country, and the Freet brothers were ready to answer that call.
While Fred had enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Reserve on September 11, 1942, Fred’s older brother, Ray, enlisted in the Army Air Corps as a paratrooper, and his younger brother, William Edward, enlisted in the Navy. These three young men, brothers and friends from childhood, were spread out throughout three branches of the U.S. military, willing and ready to serve in the second World War.
Fred had finished his basic training in California and was assigned to the F Company, Second Battalion, Eighth Marines, Second Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force. He was then sent to New Zealand for training specific to a battle planned on Tarawa Atoll, Betio Island.
No amount of training could prepare the Marines for the struggles they would face over the course of this 76-hour battle. The amphibious approach of the island was slowed by a low tide and barrier reefs. As the transport vehicles became stuck, many Marines were forced to wade to the beach. The Marines who did make it ashore were attacked from heavily fortified Japanese bunkers which had survived the initial Navy bombings.
Evidence suggests that Fred was one of the Marines who made it safely to the beach but, at some point during that first day of battle, he was killed in action. At the time of his passing, Fred had left behind his parents and his two brothers. Fred was only 18 when he died. He was just one of a total of nearly 6,400 casualties on both sides of the Battle of Tarawa before the U.S. was able to take control of the Island and airstrip on November 23, 1943.
Fred’s family was informed of his death and, after the close of WWII, the U.S. Graves Registration Company began the process of locating and recovering remains of the American casualties which had been buried on Betio Island. Fred’s family kept in constant contact with the U.S. military hoping to locate his remains. By 1949, the board of review had recovered several sets of remains but none matched Private Freet. Fred was then officially declared as killed in action and his remains declared as unrecoverable.
In 2015, a non-profit group called History Flight began excavations on areas of Betio Island and discovered additional sets of human remains in a previously undiscovered cemetery. After extensive investigation and testing, including dental records and x-ray comparisons in a report dated August 6, 2018, the U.S. Navy positively identified one set of these remains being those of Private Fred Evert Freet. Seventy-six years after being killed in action, Fred’s remains were finally found and his family would begin the process of bringing him home.
Although Fred’s parents and brothers had all passed away before this discovery and cannot be here to celebrate his return, Fred still has family to see him finally laid to rest. Fred’s half-brother, Roger G. (Dixie) Covey of Arkansas, along with several nieces, nephews, and extended family members are awaiting the day in April that Fred’s remains will be flown from Hawaii to Indianapolis and then escorted to Marion for burial in Marion National Cemetery. Fred’s remaining family is hoping to get in contact with as many extended family members as possible to be sure that they can all be witnesses to this momentous occasion.
Fred was posthumously issued the following Awards and Decorations for his service in the USMC Reserve: The Purple Heart Medal for wounds received in action resulting in his death, The Combat Action Ribbon for service during WWII, The Presidential Unit Citation for serving in the 2nd Marine Division on Tarawa, The Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, The Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with one Bronze Campaign Star, The WWII Victory Medal, and The Rifle Marksman Badge.
All are encouraged to gather at Needham-Storey-Wampner Funeral Service, North Chapel, 1341 N. Baldwin Ave., Marion, IN, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 18, 2019. At 12:30 p.m., there will be a procession of Fred’s casket to Marion National Cemetery for a 1 p.m. committal service, including full United States Marine Corps military honors.
The family and everyone blessed to have heard of this story have found great comfort in it. Our history is something that we can so easily lose grasp of, and stories like this are a reminder for us to never forget the sacrifices of those who have given their lives for our freedoms…both here at home and abroad.