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By: Jim Barber
This article appeared on Facebook
Yesterday, the Defense POW / MIA Accounting Agency announced that Sergeant Fred Farris of China Springs, Texas has been accounted for as of 14 April 2020.
Fred was born on 4 August 1924, the first child for nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Gilmore Farris and her husband, also named Fred. Two younger siblings arrived before the decade was out. The Farris family made their home in Hillsboro, Texas for several years before Elizabeth and Fred Senior split up. Elizabeth took Fred Junior, Kenneth, and Betty Jo to China Spring, where she married one John R. Pepper. The Farris children – they kept their original surname – attended grade school in China Spring and high school in nearby Waco.
By the age of seventeen, Fred Junior decided he’d had enough of school – he wanted to join the Marine Corps. Because of his youth, he would have needed parental permission to enlist; when this was granted, he traveled to the Dallas recruiting office, dropped the “Junior” from his name, and signed up on 14 October 1941. He proved to be an exceptional Marine. The attack on Pearl Harbor came just as Private Farris was finishing boot camp in San Diego; he was assigned to Company I, Third Battalion, 2nd Marines and pinned on his first stripe at the end of January 1942. By April, he was a corporal running a fire team of three other Marines. He endured more weeks of training, a long voyage on a crowded troop ship, chaotic combat preparations in New Zealand, and on 8 August 1942 made his first combat landing, a successful amphibious assault against a Japanese garrison on Tanambogo in the Solomon Islands.
Corporal Fred Farris was just a few days past his eighteenth birthday.
Tanambogo was only one small, early part of the Guadalcanal campaign; Item Company would see more heavy combat in the months to come. Farris continued his record of excellent service and was rewarded with another promotion on 1 October 1942. He was likely one of the youngest sergeants in his regiment, if not the entire Marine force on Guadalcanal. Farris beat the odds in the Solomon Islands; while he lost weight (at five feet, ten inches and 139 pounds, he did not have much to lose) and friends (nineteen Item Company Marines lost their lives in action), he made it through without any serious injury or mishap. The sergeant and his surviving comrades left the Solomons at the end of January 1943 for a long and well-deserved spell of rest, recreation, and re-training in New Zealand.
Fred Farris would not be so fortunate in his next battle. On 20 November 1943, the Third Battalion, 2nd Marines spearheaded the assault on Tarawa’s Red Beach One – a fight that gave them their lasting nickname of “the Betio Bastards.” Item Company was theoretically in a reserve wave, but the two lead companies were so badly mauled that it hardly mattered. Casualties in the battalion reached nearly fifty percent in the first few hours of the battle, and many Marines were pinned behind the questionable safety of a low sea wall.
Sergeant Farris managed to get ashore in one piece and spotted a large Japanese pillbox that was firing down the beach and holding up his company. After positioning his squad to provide covering fire, Farris edged as close as he could to the pillbox aperture. Then, pitching grenades and firing his rifle, he attacked head-on, wiping out the defenders in a furious flurry. Marines poked their heads up, saw the threat was neutralized and started moving forward. Farris, however, had no time to contemplate his deeds. A shell exploded nearby, riddling him with shrapnel. The nineteen-year-old sergeant fell dead on the ground. He would be awarded a posthumous Silver Star Medal for his actions on 20 November 1943.
When the battle ended, burial parties scoured the island for the remains of the dead. One such group collected Fred Farris’ body and brought him to a collection point. Twenty-one Marines – including thirteen from I/3/2 – were buried in this location, which the Marines designated as “Cemetery B.” Sergeant Farris was the first one laid to rest – importantly, he was identified at the time of his burial. Individual grave markers at “Cemetery B” were destroyed in the months that followed the battle; a large memorial cross inscribed with the names was installed in its place. The Navy re-designated the site as “Cemetery #10.”
In 1946, a team from the 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company dug up the cross (which, confusingly, they called Cemetery 18) and found the remains of nineteen men, many of them carrying live grenades and ammunition. Most of the dead were quickly identified by dog tags or personal effects; dental technicians were able to confirm several others by comparing tooth charts. When the investigations ended in 1949, only five Marines remained unaccounted for. Among them was nineteen-year-old Sergeant Fred Farris.
Unidentifiable remains from this cemetery were given formal burials in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in 1949. In recent years, these graves have been exhumed once again, and the remains tested using modern identification methods. One set, recovered from Betio seven decades ago and nameless ever since, turned out to be Fred Farris. He was officially identified on 14 April 2020, and is finally considered accounted for.
Welcome home, Sergeant Farris. Semper Fi.