In 1943, Grace Cruz and her family gathered at their family home in Boyle Heights when they received the news that their oldest son, Jacob, was killed during battle. He was just 18 years old. Now, decades later, the World War II vet has finally come home to his final resting place.
In an interview for "LA Times Today," columnist Gustavo Arellano joined host Lisa McRee to share his story.
Jacob Cruz was born in Arizona but moved to Boyle Heights with his family in the 1930s. He attended Roosevelt High School, and when he was a junior, his mother permitted him to enlist in the military since he was 17 years old.
"Jacob grew up during the Great Depression, and his father had abandoned the family. Since he was the oldest boy in the family, he knew it was his job to make money for his mom. He was beloved by his family, but when World War II came along, Jacob signed up for the Marines, and he would write his family letters before he was shipped off. So, this was a close family, and Jacob was beloved by everyone," Arellano said.
Then on Christmas Eve, 1943, Jacob's family received a telegram from the United States Marines that said the 18-year-old was killed in action.
"Jacob ended up going to that toll of Tarawa in the South Pacific. Even in the history of the Marines, it was considered one of the bloodiest battles; about 1,000 Marines were killed. Since Jacob was so young, they told him he had to run bullets between the safe spot and the front lines. So, he did that for a couple of runs and got killed instantly. Jacob was buried in a temporary grave in Tarawa with other Marines and sailors who died fighting the Imperial Japanese Army," Arellano added.
While he was serving in World War II, Jacob wrote letters to his family. Arellano said his mother kept his letters, newspaper clippings of his death and medals.
"His mom kept everything in a cosmetics case. Jacob got a Silver Star, a Purple [Heart] Medal and his family received a letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Eventually, that cosmetics case went to her grandson Isaac Cruz Jr. and he was kind enough to show me some of the letters. When you're reading these letters, you feel like he is coming to life. I was also able to see the telegram the family received on Christmas Eve that announced his killing. It was so poignant, and I was so honored to be able to see this," he said.
The government could not locate Jacob's remains for years, but a nonprofit organization managed to recover his body with his boots still on last year.
"That area of Tarawa gets all sorts of weather, and when the army came back to look for bodies, they forgot where they were buried. Out of 1,000 people, they were able to recover 500 bodies. And in the late 1940s, the military tells Grace Cruz that they were likely not going to find Jacob's body. Decades pass, and the family loses all hope —then a nonprofit called History Flight, they are devoted to getting the bodies of the fallen and bringing them back to the United States—in 2009, they start working on Tarawa, and they start to find bodies. And in 2020, the organization discovered more bodies, including Jacob's, underneath a house in Tarawa that was destroyed by a hurricane."
Jacob's remains were shipped to a military laboratory in Hawaii, and scientists were able to identify him through dental records and DNA. And on March 24, Jacob's body was returned home.
"They fly in a special flight from Hawaii into LAX early in the morning. You had military, firefighters, police officers doing the salute. And then there is Jacob's sister Ruth Soto, now 88-years-old; she is the first person to touch his coffin. They then take him to a mortuary in East Los Angeles, and all along the 105 freeway, you have police officers and firefighters standing on top of freeway overpasses with the American flag and the salute. It was a beautiful experience. At Plaza Mexico in Lynwood, they had a huge marquee with a picture of Jacob in his military outfit, and it reads 'A Hero Remembered Never Dies.' And then they finally buried him at the National Cemetery in Westwood," Arellano said.
Arellano spoke with Jacob's sister Ruth who is happy to have her brother home.
"After 77 years, someone who you knew was out there in the world is finally home. When I interviewed Ruth in her home, she started breaking down and was very emotional. At least we know an American hero is finally home. It brings back that phrase of the military, 'All gave some, some gave all,' and that was Jacob Cruz."
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