Twins Michael and James Reilly were serving in the 8th Regiment of the 2nd Marine Division during World War II, when the brothers ran in different directions during an assault wave on a “strip of sand” known as Red Beach.
Jimmy was struggling to reach shore when he was mortally wounded by enemy fire. Michael, who had found cover along a pier with scores of other Marines, saw his brother get hit– “just feet away.”
More than 500 Marines and sailors were listed as missing in action after the three-day Battle of Tarawa, which began Nov. 20, 1943. Jimmy Reilly, a 20-year-old from Queens, NY, was among them — according to the Marine Corps Times.
He was buried nearby in a grave that was long overlooked. But in June, the nonprofit History Flight announced it had found the burial site of what were believed to be 36 Marines. The Pentagon said five of the 36 sets of remains returned from Tarawa this past summer have been identified.
In September, the Pentagon reached out to Reilly’s relatives, to inform them that his remains had been identified.
“The first thing that came to my mind was, I wish my dad was alive to know he came home,” James’s niece told The Associated Press. Her dad, Michael, died a decade ago. He was living in Florida at the time, where he’d retired after serving as a detective for the NYPD.
Pfc. James P. Reilly will be reburied next week, with full military honors not far from his brother’s grave at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.
The Reilly twins, were the oldest of four brothers and inseparable while growing up, family members recalled. They went through boot camp together at Camp Lejeune after enlisting in the Marine Corps in 1942.
Michael’s children say for their father the war and Jimmy’s death were subjects “never to be brought up” around him. “He buried it pretty deep. I think it was his way of coping,” said his step-daughter Mary Smith.
Monday will be the twins’ birthday. Finally, more than 70 years later, the two will be reunited.