MARINE CORPS LOGISTICS BASE ALBANY --
He flew to Hawaii, not for vacation, but to bring back the remains of a fallen Marine killed in action more than 70 years ago.
As he traveled for more than 16 hours, Gunnery Sgt. Melvin G. Ashley, escort, Funeral Detail, Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, Georgia, had plenty of time to mull over his only task … to escort fallen Marine Pfc. James O. Whitehurst home.
In 2015 a private, non-profit organization known as History Flight excavated what is believed to be Cemetery 27 on the island of Betio, Tarawa, and recovered the remains of multiple individuals, one of them being Whitehurst.
“It's a very humbling experience and an honor to bring him back home,” Ashley said. “I knew it was going to be a high-visibility event, so I wanted to make sure everything was done right for the family so they could have closure.
“It needed to be picture perfect, if for nobody else but him, because that is what he deserved,” he added. “He deserved to have the perfect transportation back home to Alabama soil.”
Before his long, four-day journey began, Ashley began preparing for his task.
“I meticulously went through everything from how the remains were discovered, the fallen Marine’s history and the escort process of the remains from start to finish,” he said.
Ashley also received information that gave him more insight into Whitehurst’s Marine Corps service.
According to a pamphlet Ashley received, Whitehurst was assigned to Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines, 2d Marine Division. He was part of the strategic goal of securing the Marshall Islands during World War II where the U.S. forces were ordered to secure the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Island chain in late 1943.
From Nov. 20-23, 1943, the 2d MarDiv and the U.S. Army 27th Infantry Division landed on the small Tarawa island of Betio against stiff Japanese resistance. Whitehurst was killed in action Nov. 20, 1943, the document further indicated.
“After reading it, I started to get to know who I was escorting and began to relate to him,” Ashley said.
On April 10, Ashley’s journey began as he boarded a flight at the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport in Albany, stopping at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta before arriving at his final destination at the Honolulu International Airport in Hawaii.
The next morning, he awoke early and went to the funeral home.
“I showed up at the funeral home to inspect the remains and I made sure the uniform was perfect, to include the presentation of his ribbons,” he said. “The reality of it didn't set in until I began reviewing the remains. It was at that moment when I realized the magnitude of my assignment.”
After signing for the remains, Ashley went back to his hotel, changed into his Dress Blue Bravo Uniform and went to the Honolulu International Airport where he participated in the first of what would be four plane-side honors ceremonies. Two more ceremonies were conducted in Atlanta and one in Tallahassee, Florida.
“Plane-side honors are a way to show gratitude to the Marine who paid the ultimate sacrifice,” he said. “This is done when the remains are transported to and from an aircraft.”
Ashley admitted his emotion and excitement grew each time for the family as he knew he was one step closer to bringing Whitehurst home.
According to the escort, he did not pay attention to individuals who gathered along the glass of the terminal or those taking photos from the airplane of the plane-side ceremony.
“As an escort, your main focus is to get the Marine home,” Ashley said. “For four straight days, this was my only concern. Nothing else mattered.
“(I was) bringing back an American hero,” he continued. “(I was) bringing back (a Marine) who gave up (his life) so we can have freedom and enjoy the things we do in America.”
Ashley said the airline plane-side honor team was impressive.
“I met with the airline plane-side honor team, who were all U.S. military veterans,” he said. “Each one volunteered their own time to come in and be a part of bringing Whitehurst home.”
After arriving in Tallahassee, Ashley met Whitehurst’s family for the first time.
“I thought I was going to be perceived as just the escort,” he said. “You know, just a hand shake and thanks for bringing him home. I thought I had done my duty and that was going to be the end of it, but that is not what happened.
“It was hugs and tears,” he revealed. “We had a lot of good conversations about him. It was a welcoming experience, almost like I was part of their family.
“At dinner with Charles Odom, Whitehurst’s nephew, he told me I wasn't just a Marine that escorted his uncle, that I was now kin,” Ashley said. “I was family for the rest of our lives. One of the nephews also said, ‘you’re just not family, you are like a brother to me now.’”
Ashley said he learned more about Whitehurst through the stories told by friends and family members.
“He wanted to serve his country and do his family proud,” he said. “He joined the Marine Corps when he was 17 years old and enlisted in Birmingham, Alabama. He was a good ole American country boy from the South who was a good, solid American citizen who was qualified to become a United States Marine.
“He served as a rifleman in the infantry and fought in Guadalcanal,” he continued. “He died at a young age and wasn't given the opportunity to get married, have kids or come home after the war. He was a young adult who was not given the opportunity to grow old.”
One of the many things Ashley learned about Whitehurst was that patriotism is as prevalent today as it was back then.
“Pfc. Whitehurst wanted to join to serve his country and show his patriotism,” Ashley said. “I'm sure he did not know that he was going to sacrifice his life, but that's part of the risks assumed by Marines. We risk our lives so others can enjoy theirs.”
While escorting Whitehurst across the country to Dothan, Alabama, everybody gave 100 percent to make sure his arrival was perfect, Ashley added.
“From people lining up along the roadside waving American flags to the sheriff flying the helicopter above the motorcade, there is still a lot of pride and patriotism in America for our service members, especially for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice,” Ashley said.
On April 12, Ashley and Marines attached with the MCLB Albany funeral detail carried Whitehurst’s remains to his final resting place at Cowarts Baptist Church Cemetery in Cowarts, Alabama.
“I had a very small role in the service, during military honors, but I made eye contact with one of the family members and we had a moment with tears in our eyes,” he said. “I realized at that time, metaphorically speaking, it was as if I wasn't the escort in this process, but rather I had been escorted by Pfc. Whitehurst.”
As a 19-year veteran of the Marine Corps, Ashley said escorting Whitehurst home was one of his greatest accomplishments.
“I've had a very successful career in the Marine Corps but this, to me personally, is one of my greatest achievements, to have been given the privilege to bring a fallen Marine home from World War II,” he said.
Ashley said he started off an escort, but ended up a better Marine, friend and a new family member.
“I never met Whitehurst but in the short time that I spent with him and his family, I felt as if I knew him personally,” he said. “I felt like I owed him something because I grew as a Marine and developed a little bit more as a person.
“I feel as if he, in an unexplainable way, was the one that escorted me back from Hawaii,” he concluded.