SANBORN—After nearly 75 years of being away, a Marine with Sanborn ties who fought in World War II has finally returned home.
Merton Raymond Riser, a U.S. Marine Corps Reserve private first class, was buried with full military honors during a private family ceremony on Friday morning, Sept. 28, at Roseland Cemetery just west of Sanborn.
Ardis Dummett of Sanborn, Riser’s sister, said her brother’s remains were cremated, and he was laid to rest next to their parents, John and Elsie, as about 70 relatives from across the United States attended the burial.
“It really aged my mother,” Dummett said of her brother going missing in action. “Even though he was declared lost at sea, once in a while, she’d go to bed at night — she had a very full mind — and she’d say, ‘Oh, I wonder where Merton’s at.’ It stayed with her for the rest of her life.”
The 85-year-old remembered that Riser did not want to be drafted into the U.S. military. Her brother had been working with their father on the family farm near Sanborn when the younger Riser joined the Marines.
“He wanted to enlist because he wanted to be a Marine,” Dummett said.
Riser had spent years hunting on the family farm, which later helped him earn a medal as an expert rifleman in the Marines. He received five military medals overall, including the Purple Heart, which is awarded to those who are wounded and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those who are killed in action or die of wounds received in action.
‘Really, really handsome’
Dummett was 10 the last time she saw her brother. She and her mother traveled to California to visit Riser after he had finished boot camp and before he was shipped out across the Pacific Ocean to take part in World War II. Riser was 18 at the time.
“We were with him three days,” Dummett said. “He had to go back to camp at night, but he was there in the daytime.
“One night, he came with his dress blues,” she said. “The Marines did have the sharpest-looking dress uniforms. He was just really, really handsome.”
In November 1943, Riser was a member of Company K, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force, which landed against a fierce Japanese resistance of about 4,500 on the small island of Betio — in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands in the central Pacific Ocean — in an attempt to secure the island.
Over several days of intense fighting at Tarawa, approximately 1,000 U.S. Marines and sailors were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded, but the Japanese were virtually annihilated.
Riser was 19 when he was killed on Nov. 20, 1943, the first day of the three-day fight, according to the federal Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Despite the heavy casualties suffered by U.S. forces, military success in the battle of Tarawa was a huge victory for the American military because the Gilbert Islands provided the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Ocean fleet a platform from which to launch assaults on the Marshall and Caroline Islands to advance their Central Pacific Campaign against Japan.
‘Joyful and very sad for us’
In the immediate aftermath of the fighting on Tarawa, American military members who died in the battle were buried in a number of battlefield cemeteries on Betio.
The 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company conducted remains recovery operations on the island between 1946 and 1947, but Riser’s remains were not identified.
All of the remains found on Tarawa were sent to the Schofield Barracks Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii for identification in 1947. By two years later, the remains that had not been identified were interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
Dummett was notified about three years ago by her cousin, Earl Zoch of Arthur, about the possibility that her brother’s remains had been found.
“When he was in the service, they had to write down their mother’s maiden name,” she said of her cousin. “My brother, when he joined the Marines, he also had to write down his mother’s maiden name. Earl Zoch’s mother and my mother were sisters.”
That family connection — especially Zoch’s DNA — helped the federal government identify Riser’s remains.
On Nov. 21, 2016, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency disinterred Tarawa Unknown X-144 from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific for identification.
To identify Riser’s remains, scientists from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA analysis, anthropological and chest radiograph comparison analysis as well as circumstantial and material evidence.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency officially accounted for Riser’s remains on June 20 of this year.
Riser’s name is recorded on the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, along with the other missing-in-action military members from World War II. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.
Dummett, the youngest of four children and the last of them still living, explained how she reacted when she learned during the past couple of months that Riser’s remains had been found after more than seven decades.
“When I found out, the first thing I thought of was happiness for my mother,” she said. “I was joyful, and yet it will be very sad for us, but I’m thankful that my family can all be here and the rest of his family.”