The body of a U.S. Marine was flown into San Francisco International Airport on Friday morning, almost 73 years after his death on a small island in the Pacific Ocean during World War II.
John Saini, of Healdsburg, was a private first class with the U.S. Marine Corps who died on the first day of the Battle of Tarawa on Nov. 20, 1943.
His nephew John Saini, 65, who farms the same plot in Healdsburg where his family has lived for generations, was about 50 feet away from where his grandmother was standing when she learned of her son’s death in 1943, when he learned that his uncle’s body was recovered in April.
“What little hair I have left stood straight up,” said Saini, who is named after his uncle.
About a year ago, a cadaver dog discovered his body in a battlefield grave on Betio Island, where he rested with 34 other men for more than seven decades after the battle with the Japanese.
History Flight, a nonprofit which searches and reclaims the bodies of U.S. soldiers, uncovered the grave with a bulldozer and wrapped up the bodies. Relics of the war, including their corroded belt buckles and canteens, were found alongside them.
Saini and his cousin provided their DNA to the military and History Flight, which helped to identify their uncle’s body. His dental records matched and his skeleton was intact except for a missing tooth and arm, which is presumed to have led to his death.
“There was no question who he was,” Saini said.
On Friday, his uncle’s body was flown into San Francisco and led north to Healdsburg by a procession of California Highway Patrol officers from Sonoma County on motorcycles. At one point along the highway, Saini recalled, an elderly man stood on an overpass, saluting the fallen soldier.
“I can’t believe how incredible humanity can be when something like this happened,” Saini said. “It’s been a wonderful experience for our family and our little hometown has come together like you can’t believe.”
His body was taken to Eggen and Lance Chapel in Santa Rosa for the night. Saini will be buried during a 10:30 a.m. ceremony Saturday at Oak Mound Cemetery in Healdsburg.HealdsburgJohn SainiSan Francisco International AirportU.S. MarinesWWII