Originally Posted Online: June 14, 2012, 2:04 pm
Last Updated: June 14, 2012, 2:44 pm

Moline Marine laid to rest 68 years after his death

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By Stephen Elliott, selliott@qconline.com

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Photo: Paul Colletti
Marines carry the casket of 2nd Lt. Dwight Ekstam for burial at the Rock Island National Cemetery on Arsenal Island on Thursday, June 14, 2012. 2nd Lt. Ekstam was laid to rest on Thursday, 68 years after he died in a plane crash during WWII.

MOLINE - Sixty-eight years after his death, U.S. Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Dwight Ekstam, of Moline, finally was laid to rest.

He was 21 when he was killed in a PBJ-1, a Marine Corps variant of the B-25 Mitchell medium bomber, which crashed into a mountain while on a training mission in the New Hebrides (Asia South Pacific) on April 22, 1944.

Thursday, 2nd Lt. Ekstam's remains were buried at National Cemetery on the Rock Island Arsenal.

During that 68 years, 2nd Lt. Ekstam's life and death touched many people, including those who didn't know him. His burial Thursday connected family and fellow veterans to the pilot's final resting place.

The arrangement at the funeral home was simple.

At Esterdahl Mortuary and Crematory, the remains of 2nd Lt. Ekstam rested in a flag-draped coffin, alongside a Marine Corps uniform in front of the coffin. A black-and-white picture of the Moline native in uniform was on a nearby table.

In the visiting room was Bob Olson of Kansas City, Kan., a surviving member of 2nd Lt. Ekstam's squadron, one of a few dozen still alive of the original 485 members of the Marines VMB 423.

Mr. Olson, assisted by a walker, said he was a Marine Corps Tech Sergeant, a mechanic who worked on the planes 2nd Lt. Ekstam flew in.

Leaning over with his hearing aids to listen, Mr. Olson said he was a "troubleshooter."

"The weather was bad," Mr. Olson said. "It was one of those dark nights. You couldn't see three feet in front of you.

"We got news of this (service). Both of my daughters said, 'you should go. You'd probably be the only one from the 423.' I assume I'm the only one here from the 423."

Mr. Olson's daughters Nancy Olson, of Chicago, and Linda Robertson and her husband Steve, also of Kansas City, said it was an honor to travel to Moline to attend 2nd Lt. Ekstam's graveside service.

"Dad remembers the night they took off and waiting for them to come back," Ms. Robertson said. "Dad talked about the bond. He said it was nothing you could explain unless you were there and a part of it.

"Dad got to come home and enjoy the rest of his life. Dwight didn't."

Second Lt. Ekstam and six other Marines had gone out for a training mission in a B-25 bomber in the New Hebrides. The remains of the Moline native and his crewmembers rested more than 3,000 feet above sea level in a dense jungle on the 90-square-mile island for many years.

During World War II, the allies used the remote location as an advanced bombing base for Guadacanal and Solomons.

The story of 2nd Lt. Ekstam's recovery dates back to May 1944, when a search party searched for the missing Marines.

This past March, Hattie Johnson, head of POW/MIA affairs for the Marine Corps, based in Quantico, Va., said an island plantation owner contacted a major from Marine Air Group 11 where 2nd Lt. Ekstam was assigned. A short time after the crash, island natives had recovered a pistol and partially burned log book.

Ms. Johnson said the major found remains on the island, buried them, and erected a cross. The problem was the major didn't log the burial site and a report never was located.

In the 1980s, a search team looking for another World War II Marine Corps veteran, accidentally came upon a crash site of a PBJ-1 bomber, like the one used by the seven Marines in 1944.

After years of surveys and attempts to find the location, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command began excavation in 2009 with a team of anthropologists. The difficult climb on the mountain hindered retrieval of the remains.

Assisted by the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab in Rockville, Md., work on the island continued through 2011.

Official identification of the seven Marines wasn't made until this past Jan. 24, Ms. Johnson said.

Pat Ekstam, wife of the late Dean Ekstam, Dwight's younger brother, came to Thursday's service from her home in California. She said her late husband was eight years younger than Dwight.

Dean Ekstam traveled to the island where his brother disappeared in 1953 and 2000, but found no physical way to reach the crash site. Shortly before his death, Dean Ekstam gave a DNA sample to the government to help identify his brother if remains ever were recovered.

That DNA sample was used to identify 2nd Lt. Ekstam.

"Dean admired his brother," Ms. Ekstam said Thursday. "He tried to emulate him. His brother was a champion swimmer, this and that, so, of course, Dean wanted to do that, too. Dwight was his idol.

"As the years went by, I'm sure they would have become closer."

On Thursday, Bruce Peterson, of Port Byron, 2nd Lt. Ekstam's first cousin, was presented a certificate of rememberance from six members of the Marine Corps League Illowa Detachment.

Mike Coussens, John Hernstrom and Larry Carson, all of Moline, Kim Tack, of Coal Valley, George McNeal, of East Moline, and Arlen Beck, of Davenport, stopped to pay their respects and salute 2nd Lt. Ekstam.

"Once a Marine, always a Marine," Mr. Tack said.