More than seven decades after dying in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, the lone Oceano man to never return home finally received his proper burial Friday.

Pfc. George Bernard Murray died in November 1943 during the 76-hour Battle of Tarawa on the tiny island of Betio in the South Pacific, but it took the last 74 years for his remains to make it back to the Central Coast.

Murray was buried with full military honors at Arroyo Grande Cemetery, as several hundred people looked on and a sea of American flags swayed in the gentle breeze.

A massive flag line detail manned by Welcome Home Military Heroes lined the interior roads of the historical cemetery and welcomed Murray's funeral procession that was led by the Santa Maria-based chapter of the Patriot Guard Riders.

Planes flying over the cemetery signaled the beginning of the service that was officiated by Father Christopher Merris, who offered Murray's family a tiny vial of sand he had collected from Iwo Jima. Merris said it was the "next best thing" to having sand from the beaches of Tarawa, where he has never visited.

Merris reminded the large crowd, many of whom were veterans from all military branches, that Murray "gave the greatest love anyone can give in laying down his life for friends of future generations."

"May his place in our soul inspire us to do the good that he may do and work for the peace that he so courageously fought for," Merris said during the prayer he recited for Murray. 

The funeral was also marked by a 21-gun salute.

"I am sure she would have really been overwhelmed," George Bernard Winslett said about his grandmother's reaction to her only son finally returning. "She waited all those years for him to come home and now he's here."

Winslett was named after Murray but never knew his uncle, who died the same year he was born. He was presented with the American flag that covered Murray's casket during the funeral.

"It was such an honor," he said following the service.

Santa Barbara resident Dennis Peterson, representing the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation, said when he learned of Murray's service, he wanted to bring the American flag that flew on the masthead of the destroyer his father sailed during Tarawa to display at the funeral. Peterson is a retired Marine Corps captain.

"Our motto is semper fidelis; always faithful," Peterson said as he stood next to the tattered flag. "We never leave anybody behind if we can help it. I don't mean to sound corny, but this is the best there is. We finally get our chance."

At 93, Santa Maria's Jim Brunson remembers the Battle of Tarawa more than he'd like to. He was just 18 when the Navy sent him to Betio with a boat full of Marines. Murray was on that ship.

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"I made these landings," Brunson said, tears filling his eyes. "Tarawa. Tarawa. You just can't describe it. There are no words. You had to be there."

Nearly 6,000 Americans and Japanese died during the Battle of Tarawa. 

"I read the newspaper," Brunson said, his voice cracking with emotion. "I had to come pay my respects. As an 18-year-old, you don't know anything. You just do as you're told, but I saw. I saw so much and experienced so much, and I never forgot it."

The military used Winslett's DNA to make a positive match with Murray's remains, which were located in the final of five memorial cemeteries the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Accounting Agency searched on Betio.

"The emotions have just been out of this world," said close family friend Linda Austin following the graveside service. "It's just unbelievable. It kind of hasn't sunk in yet. The final piece of the puzzle is here."

Until today, Murray was the only veteran from Oceano never to return and, also, the first south San Luis Obispo County man to die in the war. 

April Charlton covers Santa Barbara County for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow her on Twitter@WordsDawn

 

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