Marine PFC JL Hancock, missing for the past 77 years, finally returned home to Texas Friday.
An American Airlines commercial plane bearing the soldier’s remains landed at the San Antonio International Airport, greeted by two water cannons saluting the arrival. Hancock’s surviving family — including his niece and two cousins with their grandchildren — watched as eight Marines stood at attention as the flag-draped coffin was removed from the aircraft.
It was a long journey home for Hancock, who died on Nov. 22, 1943, while serving as a rifleman in the 2nd Marine Division. His fleet force landed in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands near Hawaii, facing Japanese resistance as U.S. forces invaded the islands.
After a three-day battle, nearly 6,400 Japanese, Korean, and U.S. soldiers died. Although the Japanese forces, which included conscripted Korean laborers, were almost completely defeated, over 1,000 Marines and other U.S. military personnel were killed, including Hancock. The 21-year-old was buried in a mass grave along with 32 other soldiers, but the grave’s exact location was unclear.
Immediately after World War II, the Quartermaster Graves Registration Company worked to return the Marine to his family up until 1946, but no remains were found. In 1949 Hancock was officially declared “non-recoverable”.
In 2009, History Flight Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to searching and recovering U.S. service members, discovered a burial site in Tarawa. Upon further investigation, the location was identified as Cemetery 33. In 2019, during excavation work of the west side of the cemetery, the remains of Hancock and other soldiers were discovered.
On Feb. 17, 2021, after dental and anthropological analysis, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), which works to recover U.S. military personnel who are missing or prisoners of war, announced that they had identified Hancock’s remains after a staggering 77 years.
Originally from Panhandle, in Carson County, Texas, Hancock was brought to San Antonio at the request of his surviving family members. They wanted him to be interred at a national cemetery located as close as possible to two of his cousins who live in New Braunfels.
Jaynan Morgan, Hancock’s niece who lives in Fort Worth, said the announcement that the long-lost remains of her uncle had been recovered felt like a miracle.
“There was always a picture of my uncle at my aunt’s house,” she said. “She just talked about him being in the war and killed at a young age, always very grieved that he had not been found. … [Hancock’s return] means everything. It is a miracle that he was found.”
After the discovery, Hancock’s remains were flown to Hawaii and turned over to DPAA, which held a memorial ceremony for the Texas Marine. Thirty-one of the 33 soldiers buried with Hancock in the mass grave have been identified thus far.
“America made some promises to their men and women in uniforms that they will never leave them behind,” said retired Maj. Gen. Juan Ayala, the City of San Antonio’s director of the Military & Veteran Affairs. “They stood up a recovery unit out to Hawaii and for the last several decades they have been searching the world to include Europe, to include Korea, Vietnam, even the Middle East — all to recover the bodies of those who have not come home.”
Hancock’s remains will be interred at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in a formal graveside military service on Wednesday.
This article has been updated to correct the day of Hancock’s interment.