If you read my post last Monday on my partial book review of “Tarawa The Story of a Battle,” you know I brought up a lot of issues for future discussion regarding the Marine Corps in World War II, battle conditions, burial information and procedures, and the records themselves. This week I am going to introduce you to the USMC Casualty Cards.
If you missed the article posted by the Official website of the Marines last July, there was an article called, History division modernizes old casualty cards, now available online.
We often think of a casualty as someone who was killed during war. The USMC defines a casualty for use in these cards as, “The History Division’s Historical Reference Branch holds casualty cards for World War II, War Dogs, Interwar Period 1946-50, Korea, Interwar Period 1955-1965, and Vietnam. Casualty cards were issued when a Marine was wounded, missing, killed or deemed a prisoner of war.” 
The USMC History Division website has a page for the Casualty Card Database. You can select World War II as a searchable option. *Note: let the entire page load as it is quite lengthy. The Database page also has a link to Casualty Codes for World War II and Korea. This is a valuable resource for deciphering the cards.
If you click World War II, then click CLARK-DE BARGE, you will be taken to a page which contains all the names of Marines between that alphabetical range. There are hundreds of names and many pages to sift through until you reach COWART. You can also search the entire website by COWART William and locate his card that way. His card is located here.
It contains Name, Service number, Date of Casualty, unit, Type of Casualty, and Location. The details of the casualty will not be shown online because in many cases they are very disturbing. You can request the full card by emailing the USMC History Division.
The Casualty Card
Now let’s look at the actual Casualty Card for Pvt. William F. Cowart.
We see the final unit in which he served at the top of the card. Company C, 2nd Amphibious Tractor Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force, Gilbert Islands.
This means the final unit he served in was Company C, 2nd Amphibious Tractor Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force. To search for information on this unit, try searches on 2nd Marine Division history; 2nd Marine Division Amphibious Tractor Battalions, 2nd Marines in Tarawa and your Marine’s name.
Next we have his birth date, enlistment date, and if he had prior service, there would be information in that space. We know where he was living at the time of enlistment and who is next-of-kin is. Cowart’s file stated he was married and provided her name and address.
The birth and enlistment dates are obvious as to the information they provide. Prior service means if this Marine served in any other branch or time period prior to the current enlistment period. I do have records on a Marine Aviator who first served in the Navy to earn his wings. Then he transferred to the Marine Corps. His Casualty Card for Prior Service says “YES.” Nothing further. To locate additional service information on a Marine who had prior service, you need to obtain his OMPF (service file) from the NPRC in St. Louis. If you need a researcher there, please contact Norm Richards, his contact information is on my website under RESOURCES. Please tell him I referred you.
The next-of-kin is important because sometimes we do not have the official names of parents or a spouse. Cowart’s case is interesting because when you read his OMPF, there are many documents and letters crisscrossing in the mail between his parents and the Marine Corps and the spouse and Marine Corps. The parents did not know at the time he died, he was married apparently, based on correspondence included in the record. If the name of a spouse appears and you did not know of the existence of this spouse, you can now look for documentation. In Cowart’s case, the marriage certificate was in his OMPF.
The History concerning his casualty status is described next. We know he was Killed In Action 20 November 1943 at Tarawa, Gilbert Islands. Confirmed by letter from CG, Headquarters, 2nd Marine Division, Fleet Marine Force, to Commandant of the Marine Corps dated 12/23/43 received 1/5/44. *** (the *** means GSWs – Gun Shot Wounds.)
His card goes on to state he was buried on Betio Island. Then his body was not recovered.
The Casualty Status states he was KIA on 20 Nov 1943 at Tarawa. A letter was sent to pass this information up the line. We know he died of gun shot wounds. The Marines initially buried their dead in several hastily built cemeteries and isolated graves on the island. Graves Registration Service was not present during the Battle and the usual records and list of personal effects were not created. The Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF) would usually have many documents regarding the death, personal effects, correspondence from family and the military. Cowart’s does not.
After the Marines left Tarawa, other contingents arrived and “cleaned-up” the cemeteries. Quite often they moved the crosses without the remains beneath them. In the end, the cross was only a Memorial Cross, not an actual burial location for the Marine listed on the cross. Due to the lack of record keeping, the changes in the cemeteries and inadequate records from that, many of the Marines buried on Tarawa were deemed UNRECOVERABLE in the late 1940s.
Page 2 of the Casualty Card
Has government Insurance.
The date of death was taken from his Service Record (OMPF) obtained by the Marine Corps. The fact he had government insurance meant his spouse could collect his death benefit.
AIRMAILGRAM from Commanding Officer, 2nd Amphibious Tractor Battalion, 2nd Marine Division Fleet Marine Force to Secretary of the Navy received 3/3/44 reported man KIA on 20 Nov 43.
*Correct date of death taken from Certificate of death received from zone 4-11-44.
Supplemental Certificate of Death received from zone 4-14-44.
The previous three statements show a paper trail to document the death of Cowart.
*Buried in Cemetery #33 (Lone Pine Cemetery), Grave #11, Row #1, Plot #5, Betio, Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert Islands, Letter from Commander, Betio to Commanding General, 2ndMarDiv, FMF (reconstruction of cemeteries dated 15 Jun 44 received 1 Nov 44.
(THIS IS A MEMORIAL GRAVE) Letter from Commanding General, Headquarters, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific to Commandant of Marine Corps, dated 24 April 1945, received 7 May 1945.
**Determined non-recoverable by field board 19 October 1949.
As discussed above with Card 1, the cemetery was called Lone Pine Cemetery (you can see a list of all buried there in the IDPFs of Cowart and others buried in this cemetery. The IDPFs are almost identical in contents.) Again we have a paper trail of letters which may or may not still exist in official records.
The USMC Casualty Card gives us a glimpse into the death and burial of Cowart. It provides a paper trail we can attempt to follow for more documentation. Obtaining the OMPF (Service Record) and IDPF are next steps in learning more about Cowart’s death and burial. Next week we will talk about Cowart’s service file and the documents included which pertain to his death.
 United States Marine Corps History Division, Casualty Card Database, (http://www.mcu.usmc.mil/historydivision/Pages/Frequently_Requested/Casualty-Databases.aspx : accessed 8 Jan 2015.)
 Cowart, William F, Casualty Card, Historical Reference Branch, Marine Corps History Division, Quantico.
© 2015, Jennifer Holik, Woodridge, IL