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'The ultimate sacrifice': Long lost Duluth Marine killed in WWII interred

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A horse-drawn caisson carries the remains of Marine Sgt. James Hubert to the site of the funeral at Calvary Cemetery in Duluth on Saturday morning. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 4
Sitting with her partner, Lou Schindler of Duluth, Mary Kay Hagen of Duluth wipes tears from her eyes after being presented with the flag from her brother's coffin at the funeral of Marine Sgt. James Hubert at Calvary Cemetery in Duluth on Saturday morning. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)3 / 4
Mark James Hagen speaks at the funeral of Marine Sgt. James Hubert at Calvary Cemetery in Duluth on Saturday morning. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)4 / 4

After leaving Duluth nearly 75 years ago to become a U.S. Marine, Sgt. James Joseph Hubert came home on Saturday.

"In terms of military service, defending our country, there is a truth that all gave some, but some gave all. United States Marine Corps Sgt. James Joseph Hubert gave all," said Hubert's nephew and namesake, retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Mark James Hagen.

Hubert fought in the Battle of Guadalcanal before being killed on Nov. 21, 1943, in the Battle of Tarawa. The military designated him as "non-recoverable," and his body remained buried on a sandy coral beach on the island of Betio for decades. Due to the work of the nonprofit History Flight, Hubert was found and laid to rest in his hometown of Duluth on Saturday.

Stopping first at the grave of Hubert's mother at Calvary Cemetery, the horse-drawn caisson carrying Hubert's casket made its way along the cemetery's flag-lined road, a riderless horse following the casket to symbolize the fallen Marine. Seven decades after he was killed, six Marines carried his casket from the horse-drawn caisson to his final resting place at Soldier's Rest.

Gathering at the cemetery to pay their respects, active duty Marines in their blue dress uniforms and former Marines wearing Marine Corps hats and T-shirts were among the veterans saluting as the casket was carried by.

Hubert's great-nephew Lt. Col. Matthew Komatsu of the Alaska Air National Guard became choked up with tears as he began reading Gov. Mark Dayton's proclamation declaring Saturday as James Joseph Hubert Day in Minnesota. After taking a moment to compose himself, he continued describing Hubert's long journey home to Duluth.

"The state of Minnesota honors the spirit, courage and tenacity of generations of America's Armed Forces and today expressly honors Marine Sgt. James Joseph Hubert for his service and sacrifice to the nation," Komatsu said while wiping tears away.

Hubert left his life behind in Duluth to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hubert, born in 1921, attended St. Michael's Lakeside School and Denfeld High School. He worked with his father and joined the U.S. Navy Reserve in 1938. He left the Reserves to enlist in the Marines.

"It is said that the highest form of love that exists is the giving of one's life so that others may live. This form of love is so much more than a feeling; it is a selfless act. James left a stable job to pick up arms with the United States Marine Corps. He left friends, family to include a sister that he would never meet. He left the safety and sanctuary of what is life in the Northland, knowing full well that his decision may mean him paying the ultimate sacrifice. James Joseph Hubert sacrificed for everything that he loved," Hagen said during the funeral.

Two Marines held the American flag over Hubert's casket as the rifle salute and "Taps" sounded in the cemetery's silence. A Marine kneeled to present the folded flag to Mary Hagen, Hubert's sister born in 1940 whom he would never meet.

On behalf of Hubert's family, Mark Hagen thanked the History Flight, the nonprofit dedicated to recovering American troops lost in war and repatriating their remains on U.S. soil.

"Because of their efforts, Sgt. Hubert and the remains of almost 40 other Marines buried in Cemetery 27 are no longer counted as 'unrecoverable.' Were it not for History Flight, we would not be here," Hagen said.

History Flight started working to recover bodies at Tarawa in 2013. "Cemetery 27" was a lost cemetery that was described in documents as a 40-man burial trench. John Frye, a principal investigator with History Flight, told the News Tribune. Following the battle, the United States used the island as an airfield, and the grave markers were moved to a different location, Frye said. When the United States attempted to recover the bodies after World War II, the grave couldn't be found. It wasn't until a hole was being dug for a lightpost that the remains of a Marine were found, Frye said. Excavating the area, History Flight recovered and identified 35 Marines, including Hubert.

Being able to bring Hubert home provides closure for the family, he said.

"It's the final part of our mission. Our work isn't done until we bring them home to rest," Frye said.

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