Harley and Hazel Barker kept their fallen son, U.S. Marine Cpl. Raymond A. Barker, close even in death.
Years ago, the rural Delavan couple were buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, where “Ray” is etched on the headstone between their names.
For many decades, Raymond was listed as missing in action.
He belonged to a World War II tank company that took part in the bloody invasion of Tarawa in the Pacific on Nov. 20, 1943.
Now, Raymond’s remains are returning to Delavan 75 years after his death.
On Saturday, he will be buried with full military honors and placed with his parents.
“There is enough space between them for Uncle Ray to be buried,” said Philip A. Wright of Parrottsville, Tennessee. “It is significant that his name is already there. It indicates his parents never forgot their son.”
Wright, who is Raymond’s nephew, was a toddler when his uncle left for war in 1942. But Wright and his family stayed with Raymond’s parents from 1948 to 1952.
“We could not talk about Uncle Ray,” Wright recalled. “Every time the subject came up, my grandmother would fall sobbing in tears because of the loss. She never got over it. She placed a gold star on her front door her whole life.”
A gold star indicated a family member had been killed in active duty.
Wright never met Raymond, who stood well over 6 feet tall and sent almost half of his service pay home every month.
But he has a soft spot in his heart for him.
About a decade ago after saying prayers for Raymond on Memorial Day, Wright decided to find out more about the Battle of Tarawa.
He went online and discovered a photo of Raymond’s Sherman tank, the Condor, on Tarawa, and Raymond was listed as the tank driver.
Wright was astounded because he and his family thought the tank never made it ashore on the heavily defended atoll. More than 1,100 U.S. Marines were killed in just 76 hours there.
Eventually, Wright connected with a Frenchman, Romain Cansiere, who also was researching the battle. Together, they set up a website, tanksontarawa.com. Cansiere teamed up with Oscar Gilbert to write a book, “Tanks in Hell,” dedicated to Raymond’s tank company.
Through Wright’s research, he also talked with the gunner, Joe Woolum, who was sitting alongside Raymond during the battle.
“Joe was probably the last man to ever see Uncle Ray alive,” Wright said. “They evacuated their burning tank under heavy machine gun fire.”
Wright also talked to Raymond’s commanding officer on the phone before 90-plus-year-old Ed Bale died. Bale did not know that Raymond’s remains had not been identified and returned, and he became very upset when he learned about it.
Raymond’s remains are coming home because of a nongovernmental organization called History Flight. The group recovers and brings home America’s war dead. In the last decade, it has sent more than 100 search and recovery teams all over the world to locate missing service people.
History Flight discovered Raymond’s remains and those of other servicemen on Tarawa in 2017. Raymond’s remains were identified in Hawaii using dental records and chest X-rays taken when Raymond enlisted, Wright said.
Late last year, members of the U.S. Defense Department visited Raymond’s oldest living relative, Ellen Telz of Florida, who is Wright’s sister. They brought documents of Raymond’s service and artifacts found with him. One was a 1934 New Zealand half-crown coin.
Raymond spent a year in New Zealand, where he learned to drive a tank.
Telz gave Wright the coin, which he attached to a chain.
“I will have it with me the day of the funeral,” Wright said.
His search for information about his uncle has been a labor of love.
Wright’s next goal will be to discover photos of Raymond while learning to drive a tank.
“Somewhere, someone has a photo of him in New Zealand,” Wright said.
He is happy that Raymond’s remains are coming home. But he knows the burial will be difficult.
“I’m going to have a hard time not breaking down,” Wright said. “My thoughts will be with Uncle Ray’s parents, who never knew what happened to him. They grieved him their entire lives.”