BUSHNELL, Fla. — Marine Corps Reserve Pfc. Robert Zehetner was laid to rest at Florida National Cemetery Friday — 75 years after he was killed in what's considered one of the toughest battles in USMC history.

  • Robert Zehetner identified through analysis
  • He was killed in Battle of Tarawa
  • Burial service for Zehetner held Friday

"It's a miracle. It's just a miracle," said Janan Smith, Zehetner's last surviving immediate family member.

Smith said Zehetner was 17 years old when he enlisted just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He died at the age of 19 on Nov. 20, 1943 — the first day of the battle of Tarawa.

"One of the bloodiest and significant battles of the Pacific campaign," said Lt. Colonel Jason Filos, Inspector-Instructor with USMC's 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion. 

According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), Zehetner was one of about 1,000 Marines and sailors killed and more than 2,000 wounded during the battle. Despite this, it ended up being a victory for the U.S. It allowed Navy forces to launch assaults that would further advance the fight against Japan.

Zehetner was initially buried in a battlefield cemetery. Remains were later sent to a lab for identification in 1947.

Because Zehetner's remains could not be identified, he was buried as an unknown at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu in 1949.

Then, this summer brought the news Smith said she didn’t think would ever come.

"I sent my DNA in – you know, they requested my DNA," Smith. "I sent it in, and for about a year and a half, I didn’t hear anything. I thought, ‘Well, it’s just not going to work.'"

DPAA and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System identified Zehetner through mitochondrial analysis, dental and anthropological analysis, and circumstantial and material evidence.

While Smith said she wished her brother's remains could have been brought home while her parents and other siblings were alive, she said she’s glad he’s home at last.

“Oh, it’s just beautiful,” she said.

According to DPAA, 72,782 service members remain unaccounted for from World War II. About 26,000 of those are assessed as possibly recoverable.