Northwoods Notebook: A fallen marine is coming home, thanks to a DNA match

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Sgt. Duane Oliver Cole

By Larry Werner

On Monday, Veterans Day, we’ll take time to remember those who gave their lives on battlefields around the world. We’ll place flowers on the graves of relatives who left to fight for our country and returned in caskets.
Then there are those whose loved ones weren’t brought home to be buried, who were put to rest on the battlefield, in graves dug by their comrades as bombs fell and bullets whistled in places like the South Pacific islands where Duane Oliver Cole was killed. On Nov. 20, 1943,  during an amphibious attack on a tiny Japanese island called Betio, Cole, who was born just north of Barronett, died with a thousand other soldiers who were hastily buried in “trench graves” on that island.
After World War II ended, his remains couldn’t be identified during recovery efforts on the island, and his family knew where he died but couldn’t lay him to rest back home in Wisconsin, or in Michigan, where his family had moved when Duane was young. Sgt. Cole’s name was on the Walls of the Missing in the Philippines, and his remains were somewhere on an island where 2,000 marines charged 4,500 Japanese that day in 1943.
Craig Nelson, a Comstock farmer, would hear about his Uncle Duane at family gatherings over the years. But his mother had difficulty talking about her brother dying in the war and his body remaining somewhere over there.
Then in 2013, Craig’s cousin, Cumberland resident Wendy Phernetton, got a call at her real estate office from an organization that recovers the remains of soldiers and attempts to identify them through DNA matches. The caller from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) wanted a DNA sample from Wendy.
“I thought it was a scam,” she said one day last week. She told cousin Craig about it, and he talked to the accounting agency, and agreed to send in a swab with a DNA kit the organization sent him.
That was in September of 2013. Last month, he got a call saying his DNA was matched to his uncle’s remains, and on Oct. 16, a woman from the organization, which is based in Virginia, showed up at the Comstock farm with a Marine driver and told Craig, his wife and their two daughters that Duane Cole would be coming home.
“It was pretty emotional,” Craig said over coffee in his cousin Wendy’s kitchen. He choked up and wasn’t able to say much more, other than that this will bring “closure” to the family.  He and Wendy are grateful to the accounting agency and a private organization called History Flight that does recoveries of remains and turns them over to the DPAA for analysis.
In an email he sent after our interview, Nelson said: “We are very thankful to the people who are making SGT Cole’s return possible. The DPAA, USMC and History Flight are doing an incredible job and have worked hard to achieve the return of missing Marines.”
 What now?
Although Cole’s parents, siblings and many other close relatives are long dead, nephew Craig Nelson is working with Skinner Funeral Home to plan a visitation and burial at The Northern Wisconsin Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery in Spooner.
Nelson expects a good turnout of veterans, including an honor guard that will fire the traditional salute to the uncle he never met, his mother’s brother, who went to war at 21, died at 23 and now, 76 years later, is coming home to Wisconsin.
Larry Werner’s email is



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