The plane carrying the flag-draped casket of Marine PFC Donald Tolson was met by a family’s curious eyes.
Not a one in the group remembered him. They had never talked to him, heard him laugh or seen him smile.
But make no mistake, they knew him. From talk around the dinner table and stories on birthdays. Mainly, though, they knew him through his mother’s sadness.
Just 20 years old, he had been killed in action on a far-off island in 1943, his body lost in the messiness of war.
But recently — long after his mother, Roxy Ann Tolson, died in 1952 — the remains of her youngest son were found.
So on Friday, the family gathered on the tarmac at KCI and waited for Donald to come home. They huddled against a cool breeze and shielded their eyes from a bright sun. Some came from the roots in Grundy County, some from Kansas City. A niece came all the way from Michigan.
They watched the plane pause during taxi to the terminal for a firetruck water canon salute. They stood bone quiet as an honor guard of Marines carried the casket to a hearse.
Afterward, Teresa Smith, a second cousin, put her hand over her heart.
“Aunt Roxy would be so happy we were here today,” she said. “She wanted this day to happen. She wanted him home.”
Tolson, who enlisted right out of high school, will be buried Saturday next to his mother at Mt. Moriah Cemetery in south Kansas City. She had purchased the plot more than a half-century ago in hopes that he would someday, miraculously, come back to her.
Military officials say the remains were discovered when a man building a carport on an island in the South Pacific found rusty dog tags. Tolson had been killed Nov. 20, 1943, shortly after his outfit landed on a beach in the battle of Tarawa.
Smith’s mother, Judy Klinginsmith, 78, thanked the Marines and everybody else who helped find Tolson and bring him back to Missouri.
“It just means so much to all of us,” she said.
Smith provided the military a DNA swab for identification purposes, but it was unnecessary. The remains were so well preserved that dental records did the job.
Tolson had been wrapped in a poncho and buried in the dry, sandy soil of Betio Island.
“They could even tell he had one bullet wound to the head — his helmet was there with him,” Smith said. “So he didn’t suffer on that beach. He died instantly. I know some in the family had worried about that.”
A large contingent of Patriot Guard escorted the hearse to Mt. Moriah.
“We heard the older ones talk about him for years,” Smith said. “This has all been a mystery for 74 years and now we have closure. He’s home.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182