JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) - A chilling silence fell over the tarmac Saturday as Delta Airlines flight 1163 touched down.
Nearly 70 years after paying the ultimate price fighting for his country, Marine Private First Class James Samuel Smith is finally back home.
Dan and Carey Smith are Smith's two nephews who have spent decades wondering if this day would ever come to fruition.
"It just makes you proud not only that he's coming home, but that the military still thinks enough of those missing in action," said Dan. "It was real, real emotional. I think I may have even shed a tear or two."
Family members stood with gratitude as members of the United States Marine Corps Military Honor Guard from Baton Rouge gently removed the Liberty native. Unaccounted for since World War II, Smith's remains were found buried on the battle front of the South Pacific beach after the bloody Battle of Tarawa.
"Knowing that all of this is coming to a close, it was joyful," said Carey. "More joyful for me than anything. And heartbreaking because his mama and daddy weren't there, my grandparents."
In November 1943, Smith was assigned to Company C, 2nd Amphibious Tractor Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, which landed against stiff Japanese resistance on the small island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands, in an attempt to secure the island. Over several days of intense fighting at Tarawa, approximately 1,000 Marines and sailors were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded, but the Japanese were virtually annihilated. Smith died sometime during the first day of the battle, Nov. 20, 1943.
Despite the heavy casualties suffered by U.S. forces, military success in the battle of Tarawa was a huge victory for the U.S. military because the Gilbert Islands provided the U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet a platform from which to launch assaults on the Marshall and Caroline Islands to advance their Central Pacific Campaign against Japan.
Smith's company incurred 20 casualties over the course of the battle with 18 of them occurring on the first day. His casualty card initially listed him as missing in action and did not list burial information.
Based on the prolonged lack of information regarding his whereabouts, the Navy made a presumptive finding of death as of Nov. 21, 1944.
In June 2011, a nongovernmental organization, History Flight, Inc., notified The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) that they discovered a burial site on Betio Island. In 2012, a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (now DPAA) team excavated the site and recovered three individual sets of remains.
To identify Smith's remains, scientists from DPAA used circumstantial evidence and laboratory analysis, to include dental comparisons, and anthropological and chest radiograph comparison analysis, which matched Smith's records.
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, more than 400,000 died during the war.
He was just 19 years old.
Several days of intense fighting unfolded and nearly 1,000 Marines and sailors lost their lives and more than 2,000 were wounded.
"It was a closure for my father, grandmother and grandfather and all of the rest of the cousins," added Dan. "None of his brothers are still living."
Smith's remains were escorted with the lead of the Patriot Guard riders to Liberty, Mississippi, where he will be laid to rest with full military honors on Monday.