Ken Budd has an obsession.
For 25 years he’s been trying to locate the remains of his older brother who was killed on Guadalcanal during World War II.
Four times he’s made the trip searching for the remains of his 19-year-old brother, Pvt. Robert Budd. The young Marine was killed in a firefight with the Japanese.
Robert came ashore in the first wave of “Leathernecks” on Aug. 7, 1942. He was a Browning Automatic Rifleman in C-Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Division.
Twenty days later, the young Marine was killed in action.
All his parents back home in Syracuse, N.Y. received from the War Department was a telegram telling them their son had been killed during the assault on the Pacific island on Aug. 27, 1942.
Today, Ken lives in Tropical Gulf Acres, south of Punta Gorda, Fla. The 76-year-old retiree said, “My parents went all to pieces when they got the telegram from the government about Robert’s death. They were devastated.”
He was a 9-year-old boy at the time, but he still remembers the tragic message from that day so long ago.
Ken grew up, served in the Marines during the Korean Conflict, came home, had a family and often wondered how his brother was killed on Guadalcanal. Half a century later, he decided to find out.
Ken began by getting Robert’s records from the National Personnel Record Center in St. Louis, Mo. Then he checked out the National Marine Corps Museum, which at the time was located in the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.
“I found one Marine, Ralph Dodge, who was in my brother’s rifle squad. He trained with him in boot camp,” Ken said. “He assured me my brother was given a good burial on the battlefield after the firefight with the Japanese.”
He also learned his brother’s unit was part of the Marine assault troops whose objective was to capture the Japanese airfield on Guadalcanal. Ken kept searching for more members of Robert’s squad, platoon, company and battalion.
Before he was done, he had spoken to Robert’s sergeant major, his company commander, and other members of Robert’s rifle squad. He even talked with two members of the Marine burial squad who buried his brother the day after he was killed.
“What I learned was, my brother was shot in the jungle in a Japanese ambush,” Ken said. “His company was assigned to sweep the coastal plain of Japanese soldiers.
“The Japanese set up two machine guns, one on a 100-foot tall bluff and the other down below in the jungle. Company-B walked into the ambush and was chewed up by intersecting fire from the enemy machine guns,” he said. “Robert’s squad was called in to back up B-Company. Robert and Tommy Phillips, his assistant BAR man, got caught in the same crossfire from the machine guns.
“Robert was shot through the chest. As he was going down, Tommy grabbed for him and his BAR. When he did, Tommy took a machine gun round through his right side that exited out the top of his left shoulder.”
Ken got this information about how the two Marines died from Cpl. Charley Wolff, their squad leader, who was beside them when both were killed. Moments later, an enemy grenade landed beside the corporal.
“He took the butt of his Springfield rifle, put it over the grenade and stood on it. Eyewitnesses said when the grenade exploded it blew him 10 feet in the air, but he wasn’t injured, except for a butt full of splinters from his rife. Wolff got a Silver Star for his heroics. If it had been today, he would have received the Medal of Honor,” Ken said.
Their squad leader told him years later, “‘It just wasn’t my day to die.'”
By 1985, Ken had put together a fairly complete chronology of his older brother’s final moments. He knew exactly where the battlefield was from official wartime aerial photos of the area, and he had talked to many Marines who fought there alongside his brother and survived.
During his investigation, Ken knew a U.S. Army grave registration unit had been sent out shortly after the war to find Robert, Tommy and a number of other Marines killed in the firefight on Guadalcanal and bring them home. The experts came up empty.
Ken also learned the United States government does not look for missing U.S. servicemen killed in action. If the remains of someone thought to be an American serviceperson turns up, the Joint POW/MIA Accountability Command may be sent to check it out, but it won’t conduct a search for a serviceperson’s remains because it doesn’t have the staff.
In August 1985, Ken, with some of his investigative information in hand, flew to Honiara, the capital city of the 90-mile-long and 35-mile-wide island.
“During my first trip, I told the priest at the mission nearby, ‘The thing that bothers me is my brother and all the other Marines buried over here are without a grave marker and nobody knows where they are. The priest made me an offer. He said, ‘If you have a plaque made for your brother and his friend, I’ll put it on the church wall.’
“When I returned the following year, I brought the plaque with me. It’s up on the wall of the church today,” he said.
Ken got a room in Honiara, which is about the size of Punta Gorda, stayed at one of the island’s three hotels, rented a car and took a drive on Guadalcanal’s only paved road five miles out of town to the area where he thought Robert was buried.
“I spotted the cliff where the Japanese soldier set up his machine gun. I knew I was in the general area of the battle,” Ken said. “I stopped the car and an eerie feeling came over me. This was in the right spot to begin my search, I was certain.”
Tomorrow: What Ken Budd found buried on his later Guadalcanal quests.
When I called Ken Budd to set up an interview with him about his search for his brother, a Marine killed during the Battle for Guadalcanal in World War II, I suggested meeting him at his home the following Monday morning. He asked me what the date was.
I looked at my pocket calendar and told him, “Aug. 27.”
He hesitated a minute and then said, “I won’t have any trouble remembering that date.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“That was the date Robert was killed on Guadalcanal — Aug. 27, 1942.”
On second dig, man finds human bones about – where he expected brother’s remains to be – Second of two parts
Ken Budd was 10,000 miles away from his Tropical Gulf Acres home south of Punta Gorda. He stopped his rental car outside Honiara, the capital city on Guadalcanal, one of the many Pacific islands in the Solomon Island chain. He was certain that is where his brother’s World War II grave, for which he had been searching decades, was located.
There was the 100-foot-high bluff where the Japanese machine gunner ambushed Pvt. Robert Budd. Ken also had an eerie feeling he couldn’t explain, which told him this was the place.
He had spent years assembling facts, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, about his older brother’s death. Ken knew how his brother was killed, when he was killed and roughly where he was killed. An Army Grave Registration team that searched shortly after the war for his brother’s remains, and the remains of a number of other Marines killed in the same firefight, turned up nothing.
That’s why he was there. It was August 1985 and Ken was on his first quest to solve the riddle and find his brother’s bones.
“I stopped at a nearby Catholic mission and talked to the priest, who was an American. I told him I was searching for my brother and he took me to meet a number of local Micronesian villagers,” Ken explained. “On this first visit, I found an older native named Mingara, who in 1946 or ’47 had taken the Grave Registration team out to search for the buried Marines.”
He learned from the native that the Grave Registration people never dug the first hole. They apparently falsified their records by noting they dug here and there in the general area, but found nothing.
On that first trip to Guadalcanal, Ken developed an understanding about the terrain and where to dig. However, he held off digging until his second trip.
The following year, in 1986, he came back with his wife, Nancy. She was concerned the natives might put him in a pot and eat him for lunch. What Nancy learned on her only trip to the Solomon Islands was that the Micronesian people were friendly and charming.
“When we returned I immediately hired a team of four natives and began digging,” Ken said. “They hadn’t dug long when they recovered a BAR magazine with 12 unspent rounds in it. This was a significant find.
“Robert was killed (while in possession of) his Browning Automatic Rifle; it was recovered a short time later by another Marine. The first thing that Marine did was pull out the half-spent magazine and replace it with a new one that was fully loaded with 20 rounds of ammunition in it.”
Ken believes the Marine discarded the BAR magazine right where Robert and Tommy Phillips, his assistant BAR man, died on the battlefield with the automatic weapon in their hands.
This was his big find of the second trip. When he got home, he continued researching the battle and talking to old Marines about the firefight on Guadalcanal.
When Ken returned on his third trip in 1989, he started digging with his native team right where they had found the BAR magazine. They hadn’t dug far before his natives found some human bones.
“I started working the site and carefully uncovered the bones of what we later determined was a Japanese soldier. He died with his dogtags around his neck.
“I contacted the Japanese consulate. In the next couple of days, we found two more sets of human remains. We weren’t sure who they were because neither was wearing dogtags.
“When the Japanese consul arrived, he wanted to take all three (sets of) human remains back with him and cremate them, but I told him no. I explained that the other two sets of bones could be those of Robert and Tommy.
“I almost caused an international incident when I called Hawaii and got the (Joint POW/MIA Accountability Command) to send a forensic team to determine the origin of these bones. They determined that one set was of Japanese origin, but the other one was an Oriental, but not a Japanese. The consul collected the Japanese remains and left.”
That was the high point of Ken’s third trip.
“I came back on my fourth trip in 1993. That was the year I found remains of 12 bodies and a grizzly tale to go with them,” he said. “During that month’s dig we determined that four or five sets of bones were Japanese. They turned them over to the the consul like the first ones. The other seven or eight sets of remains were local natives and they were given to the Solomon Island Museum.
“I found some weird things during that ’93 dig. I discovered two complete sets of hand and finger bones. Then I found three sets of foot bones tied together two-by-two, but no other bones,” he said. “Later, I dug up torsos and heads together without any arms and legs.”
Ken had no idea what had happened until he talked to the Catholic priest at a nearby mission.
“The priest told me that the Japanese were starving because they had been cut off by the American forces and had no food. They were forced to become cannibals. They started killing natives and eating them. The only parts they ate were their arms and legs.”
That’s why he was digging up hands and feet without arms and legs connected to them. That’s also why they were finding armless and legless torsos.
Just when Ken thought he was on the verge of finding his brother’s grave, he got a call that his mother had died in Syracuse, N.Y. He needed to fly home immediately for the funeral, which he did.
Since his last trip 14 years ago, he has been contacted by people from the 1st Marine Division Museum in Texarkana, Texas. They told him if he will make one more trip to Guadalcanal, they will accompany him and bring along a ground radar unit built to find lost graves.
“I’m tentatively planning to make my next trip in 2008 with the 1st Division Marines,” he said. “I want to be there when they use that ground searching radar to find Robert’s and Tommy’s graves.”
When and if it happens, what does he plan to do with their bones?
“I’m going to ask the federal government to bury them side-by-side in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. They were killed side-by-side and buried on Guadalcanal side-by-side. You don’t want to separate them now.
“That’s the least the federal government can do for two Marines,” Ken said.
These stories were first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Sept. 3 and Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007, respectively and are republished with permission.
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