Thomas Murphy, pictured here at 22 when he was in the Navy, was killed during World War II in Tarawa. Nearly 75 years later, his body was discovered and returned home to Butler County, where he will be buried on Memorial Day.
Murphy, a Navy pharmacist's mate who administered medical assistance to personnel, was 22 when he was buried in what was known as Cemetery 27, or the "Lost Cemetery."
During a construction project in 2015, Cemetery 27 was discovered underneath a parking lot on Tarawa. Murphy’s body was recovered and his identification was officially confirmed in 2017. Murphy was among the tens of thousands of unaccounted American soldiers from World War II that the United States government is still trying to identify.
Oliver's parents, Lester and Juanita Oliver, died in 1990 and 2011, respectively. It wasn’t until after Oliver’s mother died when the family started to learn more about their uncle.
“We didn’t even know about the Purple Heart until my mother died,” Oliver said.
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She and her siblings found the medal awarded to those wounded or killed in battle along with several newspaper clippings about her uncle.
“I just about lost it,” she said. “My uncle’s life, in a nutshell, was in this little box with these ancient newspaper clippings.”
Thomas Jesse Murphy died during a World War II battle, but his remains were only recently found. Muprhy’s family, some of whom live in Butler County, said all they knew about their relative came from a few newspaper clippings. They found his Purple Heart in a drawer after their mother’s death.
And that was all they knew about Murphy until an official with the Navy called Oliver’s older sister, and designated next-of-kin, last fall saying their uncle's remains had been found 75 years after his death.
"We were like, ‘What?’ We thought it was fake,” Oliver said.
But it turned out to be real, and officials from the Navy met with Oliver and her sister, Nancy Oliver Huntelman, in January. That’s when they set the funeral date.
“Since he was 75 years late being brought home, my nephew thought it might be neat to bury him on Memorial Day,” Oliver said.
Murphy will be brought home to Hamilton to be buried next to his brother and sister-in-law in Greenwood Cemetery.
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Murphy saw a lot of action during his 17 months in the service. A ship he was on in the Casablanca landings was torpedoed and sunk in November 1942. He spent several hours in the water before being rescued. He was also in other action in which the ship he was on was either damaged or sunk.
In November 1943, Murphy was assigned to Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Fleet Marine Force. They landed, against stiff Japanese resistance, on the small Island of Beto in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands, in an attempt to secure the island. He was killed on the first day of battle on Nov. 20, 1943.
Murphy was the son of Jess and Anna Murphy of Greencastle, Ind.
His remaining relatives are two nieces, Huntelman and Oliver, both of Fairfield; and two nephews, John Oliver of Fairfield Twp. and Jim Oliver of Sedona, Ariz.
Oliver said it’s odd to bury an uncle she never met.
“It makes you sad that our father isn’t here to see his brother buried, and his mother, and my mom,” she said. “My dad didn’t really have any relatives so there’s no connection to my uncle. No one that knew him, nobody that spoke of him, so it’s very bizarre learning and trying to read everything online, or from the Navy to learn about somebody and their death.”
Funeral services for Murphy will be held at 11 a.m. today, May 28, with full military honors at Greenwood Cemetery. The service is open to the public.