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After 75 years, a Marine finally gets to come home

Robert Zehetner joined the Marines when he was 17. His photo still hangs in his little sister's home. (Family photo)
Robert Zehetner joined the Marines when he was 17. His photo still hangs in his little sister's home. (Family photo)
Published Dec. 20, 2018

Janan Smith was 6 when her big brother left to fight in World War II. She was 8 when he died in the Battle of Tarawa. She was 83 on the day she stood cooking in her kitchen and the phone rang.

"You'll never believe this," the woman on the other end of the line said, "but we found your brother."

Seventy-five years after Robert Zehetner died, DNA testing helped identify his remains.

"It was God and the Marines that did it," said his little sister, the only living member of his nuclear family.

As a kid, Jan didn't know 17-year-old Bobby too well.

He was the only blue-eyed one of four siblings, just like their mother. Jan and Tommy, who was three years older, liked to throw rolled up socks at Bobby while he tried to study.

He'd holler for their mom, "come get these kids."

Bobby was gentle and studious and only a junior at Pasco High School when Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941. On Dec. 16, his mother allowed him to enlist in the Marines, after he spent days convincing her to let him go.

Two years later, on a November day, Jan and her brother were picked up at school and brought home to sad news - Bobby had died in the Pacific, in the Gilbert Islands.

"It ruined my mother's life," Jan said.

Her mother had a photo of Bobby framed for each of his siblings. It hangs in a hallway near the backdoor in Jan's home in Dade City, near photos of her three children and grandchildren.

Marcie Bissell grew up looking at that photo, hearing her mom and grandma talk about her uncle. She saw the medals he'd received, including the Purple Heart.

He'd been gone a long time. So a year and a half ago, when her mom was asked to send in some swabs, Marcie didn't think anything would come of it.

Neither did Jan, but, she said then, "I'm gonna bring him home if I possibly can."

Eighty-six men who fought and died in Tarawa have been identified so far, including Bobby. In November, people stood waving American flags on the sidewalks of Dade City as the hearse carrying his remains headed to Florida National Cemetery. There were bagpipes and a gun salute. Marcie sang a song her mother picked out, Another Soldier's Coming Home.

It's been hard to watch her mother grieve all over again, Marcie said. But now, she feels like she knows her Uncle Bobby.

"He's not just a figure in a picture," she said.

And now, Jan can visit him at the cemetery.

She and her husband plan to be buried there, too, she said, "so he will have family around him."

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Want to know more about Robert? Head over to Instagram and @werememberthem and see one way his sister will remember him. Know someone who has recently died whom we should write about? Send suggestions to Kristen Hare at epilogue@tampabay.com.

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