Body of World War II Marine on Final Journey Home

Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Isis M. Ramirez
Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Isis M. Ramirez

On Friday, Sonoma County will welcome home John Saini, who was two years out of Healdsburg High when he died in 1943 in one of the Marine Corps' deadliest battles, and for more than seven decades lay in an undiscovered grave on an islet of the central Pacific's Tarawa Atoll.

A casket bearing Saini's remains is set to arrive at San Francisco International Airport at 9:30 that morning.

It will be escorted to the Eggen & Lance funeral home in Santa Rosa by a motorcade to include members of the Saini grape-growing family of greater Healdsburg's Alexander and Dry Creek valleys, Marines, CHP officers and motorcyclists committed to accompanying the remains of fallen warriors.

Ron Henderson of Fred Young Funeral Home, which is handling the arrangements, said he expects the motorcade to arrive at the Eggen & Lance Chapel on Mendocino Avenue, across from Santa Rosa Junior College, between about noon and 1 p.m. Delays in the flight from Hawaii or at the airport or on the road could cause the hearse and its escort to arrive later in the afternoon.

At 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Saini's casket and the Marine staff sergeant assigned to accompany it will leave the mortuary for Healdsburg.

The escorted hearse will take Highway 101 to the Healdsburg Avenue exit and pass by Memorial Beach en route to Oak Mound Cemetery.

Healdsburg firefighters plan to salute Saini with an American flag on a ladder truck at Limerick Lane, just south of town.

A graveside service, to include a rifle salute, the playing of taps and presentation of the flag by a Marine Corps honor guard, will begin at 10:30 a.m. at the cemetery on Piper Street. It is open to the public.

Marine Pfc. Saini was 20 years old when he was killed on the islet of Betio on Nov. 20, 1943, the first day of the horrendously tragic, 76-hour battle for Japanese-held Tarawa Atoll, a small chain of islands about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii.

Saini and more than 1,000 other Marines and sailors were buried in battlefield graves. The fighting also claimed more than 5,000 Japanese and Koreans.

After the war, in 1946 and '47, the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Co. mounted a remains recovery operation on Betio but did not locate the grave in which Saini was buried.

In February of 1949, a military review board declared Saini's remains unrecoverable.

That declaration was crushing to the fallen private's parents and siblings, all of whom grew old and died hoping that his remains would be found and returned to Healdsburg for a proper, Catholic burial.

Saini's older sister, Virginia Hallin, a fellow Marine, never gave up advocating and supporting efforts to locate and return his remains. She donated a sample of her DNA for use in positively identifying his remains, should they be found.

Hallin, who served in World War II with the Marine Corps Women's Reserve, was 92 when she died in 2014. She and Saini's younger brother, Eugene "Si" Saini, served with the Navy and grew wine grapes in northern Sonoma County for many years prior to his death in 2006.

Nearly 72 years had passed since John Saini died on Betio when an archeological crew from the nonprofit History Flight Inc. discovered on the islet a battlefield grave in June 2015. History Flight's mission is to locate and repatriate Americans lost to war.

The long-lost grave on Betio yielded what was in time confirmed to be the remains of 35 Marines, one of them Pfc. John Saini of Healdsburg.

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