May 8, 1922 – November 22, 1943
J.L. Hancock grew up in the small Texas Panhandle town of McLean. He was one of five children of William and Ethel Hancock. His nickname was “Jay”, and he was Jaye’s uncle. Jay was 19 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese thrusting the United States into World War II. Like so many young men of that time, he was eager to serve his country. He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in Oklahoma City on February 17, 1942 along with his longtime friend Granville Boyd. The Marines had a policy at that time allowing friends who enlisted together to go through training and be assigned to the same groups.
Jay received his basic training at Camp Elliott in San Diego, California and was appointed Private First Class on June 24, 1942. His regiment was shipped out to the South Pacific in the fall of 1942 arriving in New Zealand for advanced combat training. Jay’s unit first saw action against the enemy forces at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in late 1942 and early 1943. After the battle was won, his unit occupied the island for a few months before being returned to New Zealand for R&R. Jay’s unit was next assigned to be part of the invasion force at Tarawa, a small group of islands in the Gilbert Islands. The Japanese had occupied the islands for about two years and had built an airstrip on Betio island. The island was protected by approximately 4500 Japanese troops. There were 500 reinforced concrete pillboxes, many with artillery as large as 8” guns, and many machine gun nests. The Japanese probably expected to be able to repel any attack, but the Marines took the island in 76 hours after the initial invasion. The victory came at a high cost.
The invasion began early on November 20, 1943. Many landing craft could not reach the beach on the north side of the island during the initial invasion due to unexpected tide changes and the barrier reef. Marines were forced to swim and wade as much as a mile to the beach and were easy targets both before and after reaching the beach. Despite bombardment by U.S. Naval ships supporting the invasion, many of the Japanese gun placements were still functional. Heavy fighting continued as the Marines moved slowly inward during the first 24 hours. Jay’s regiment was assigned to land on the West side of the island on the second day of the battle and sweep in behind the Japanese troops defending against the primary invasion. His group encountered intense resistance with the Japanese troops refusing to surrender. According to survivors there was much hand to hand battle.
On the third day of the battle, November 22, 1943, Jay lost his life due to artillery shrapnel while defending a group of men in a foxhole near him. His death occurred about one half hour before the Japanese resistance was finally brought under control. The U.S. Marines and Navy lost 1,026 men during battle and 2,557 were wounded. Only a few Japanese soldiers were captured with most being killed during the action. PFC J.L. Hancock was buried along with his fellow fallen Marines on the island where they died. Graves were recorded, marked, and preserved as best as possible during the remaining occupation of the island. Many in Jay’s regiment, including his friend who enlisted with him, went on to other battles in the Pacific region and eventually were part of the occupation force in Japan at the conclusion of the war.
In 1946 the U.S. Army Graves Registration Unit came back to Tarawa to identify the many grave sites and move them to a more formal gravesite on the island. Some had been buried in individual graves while others were buried side by side in trenched graves. The unit was only able to locate about half of the fallen soldiers to inter them in the new gravesite. Later in 1946, the unit moved their bodies to Hawaii for identification and return to their families. Over 500 of the Marine’s remains including those of PFC J.L. Hancock were never located and were declared “unrecoverable” in 1949.
In 2015, a non-profit organization began work with the Department of Defense to locate the remaining fallen service members from the battle at Tarawa. Jaye was contacted by the DOD and made aware of the effort. In 2019 the gravesites of Jay and some of his fellow Marines were finally located and their bodies were removed and taken to Hawaii for identification. Jaye received notification about four weeks ago that Jay’s remains had been identified and verified through DNA matches to family members. Arrangements are being made now to bring Jay back to Texas to be interred at one of the National Cemeteries, most likely at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio since some of Jaye’s cousins live near there. Jaye is fortunate to have a scrapbook kept by her grandmother with many items including pictures and personal letters sent home by her son, Jay. Some facts of this story were contained in the scrapbook with other details coming from DOD documents provided to Jaye or magazine and newspaper articles of the period.
Thanks for taking the time to read this story about a brave young man who gave his life along with so many others so that we could be free. Let us remember them all on Memorial Day and be thankful for their service and sacrifice.
11:30 am - 12:00 pm
Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery
Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery (Shelter #3)
June 12, 2021
I did not know this brave man. I just wanted to say thank you for your service. You paid the ultimate price to keep this country free. I'm so glad you're coming home to the hero's burial that you deserve. Never forgotten.