Whenever Edgar and Mary Argersinger asked their grandmother what happened to their Uncle John in World War II, she alwaystold them the same thing: Her son was “blown to bits” on a Pacific Atoll called Tarawa. That’s why his body was never returned to her.
Uncle John was Edwin Francis Benson, the only boy in a family of three, who grew up as a mischievous child. He loved animals and wanted to serve his country. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps in the summer of 1940, more than a year before Pearl Harbor. By the time he headed into Tarawa on November 20, 1943, he was 22 years old.
Private Benson, with 2nd Marine Division’s L Company, 3rd Battalion 2nd Marine Regiment, packed in a landing vehicle tracked (LVT) with about 24 other Marines headed towards Tarawa’s Betio Island. The LVT got stuck on the coral reef surrounding the island, forcing Benson and his fellow Marines to wade to shore under enemy fire. The Japanese defending the island cut down many marines before they reached the beach, but the Americans pushed inland, securing a beachhead 500 yards deep. But when their commander, Major Michael P. Ryan, realized they had exposed themselves to a counterattack, he pulled the men back 100 yards. Sometime during the fighting, Benson died from a gunshot wound to the head.
The battle would last two more days, with the Marines overrunning the rest of the island, suffering more than 3,000 casualties, including Private Benson. Almost all of the 2,636 Japanese troops were killed. The Americans took only 17 soldiers prisoner.
Mary and Edgar Argersinger grew up learning scant details of Uncle John. Mary remembered her grandmother telling her that Tarawa was one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Edgar received his uncle’s name, Edwin, as his middle name. Today, two of Edgar’s sons serve in the Marine Corps.
The U.S. military never stopped trying to identify its World War II dead. In 2013, the Marine Corps requested from Edgar a DNA sample to help identify his uncle, after a non-profit group located a war cemetery on Betio in 2009. Edgar agreed and provided a cheek swab. The cemetery discovery led to a 2017 disinterment of 94 Tarawa unknown marine graves in Hawaii’s National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, one of which eventually proved to be Benson. In July of 2019, Ms. Hattie Johnson, head of the POW/MIA Section at Marine Corps Headquarters, reached out to tell Mary (now Gonzales) that Uncle John had been identified, and he could be buried anywhere the family requested. Both she and Edgar agreed that he should be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
On November 19, 2019, Private Edwin Francis Benson was finally laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery’s Section 60, receiving military funeral honors with funeral escort. Both Mary and Edgar attended. “It was closure for my grandma, and my mom, and her sister, and for us,” said Mary. “It was just absolutely beautiful.” The grave-side Marine Corps ceremony impressed Edgar. “They’re doing that for my uncle, who they never met,” he said. “They’re marines and they would do that for their best friend or a guy they never met. And that guy they never met would take a bullet for the guy standing next to them, without even a slight hesitation.”
In the end, Benson was not “blown to bits” and his remains were returned home, maybe not to his mother, but to his family.
Author: Kevin Hymel, Historian