When someone you love dies in war, a flag-covered casket and 21-gun salute honor their sacrifice as family gathers to say goodbye. But how does it feel when you lose someone to war and don’t get that chance because the person you love never comes home?
This is the painful reality for the family of Arkansas native Private Robert Walter Hillard. Robert died in the Battle of Tarawa, his body left behind as the battle raged on.
After that, Private Hillard became one of Arkansas’ Lost Boys.
His family never forgot him, though, with his mother, then her descendants, continuing the fight to bring him home.
In the middle of nowhere between Hot Springs and Mena, you find the story of a mother’s love bigger than the Ouachita Mountains and a heartache stronger than the Cossatot River.
Susan Hillard and Ruth Williams are the nieces of Pvt. Robert Walter Hillard. Their grandmother, Susie Ratliff, was Robert’s mom.
“She was just a housewife that had a ton of kids,” Ruth said.
When Robert was killed in World War II and his remains never came home, the loss wrecked the family.
“I’m sure it was devastating,” Ruth said. “I mean, it would be to me.”
“I think it was difficult for her and I don’t think she talked about it a lot because it was so hard,” Susan added.
Susie Ratliff was broken.
“She wanted to know where he was,” Susan said. “She wanted to know he was OK, if that makes sense.”
The boy from Big Fork, Arkansas, was one of 13 children. Robert lived a quiet country life.
“They would go to the creek and take a coffee can and catch crawdads and boil and eat them,” Ruth said.
Things were simple, until the surprise military strike on Pearl Harbor. Just five months later, at 18 years old, Robert joined the Marines.
“He was a kid,” Susan said.
No one could know that just a year later, a telegram would arrive to Big Fork with the worst news – Pvt. Robert Hillard was killed in the Pacific on November 20, 1943.
He was 19 years old. The heartache for Ruth’s grandmother was unbearable.
At the battle of Tarawa, about 1,000 U.S. Marines and soldiers died. Some of those remains were eventually recovered and taken to Hawaii. To this day, more than 400 men from that battle are still unaccounted for, including Pvt. Robert Hillard.
“That would be a blow,” Susan said.
While Robert remains lost to history, that wasn’t without a decades-long fight to bring him home.
As the war was raging overseas, a private war was waged by Robert’s mother. Her weapons were a pen and paper. Susie sent letters upon letters to D.C. demanding answers.
“I think she wanted him found,” Susan said. “I think that was very important to her.”
Her pain was something Susie bore alone.
“I think it was real private to her, too,” Susan said. “I think that that was a hurt she wanted to keep.”
Only time and DNA will track down Robert’s remains. Ruth submitted her DNA to the Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency once she heard we were doing this story.
“They might call us and tell us six months from now,” Ruth said.
That DNA waits on a match to remains that sit in rows of boxes in a lab in Hawaii. There’s no way of knowing yet if Ruth and Susan’s uncle’s remains are even there.
“I would be thrilled if we could take his bones and put them back,” Ruth said.
Back to where they belong.
Ruth and Susan’s grandmother is buried in a peaceful cemetery just down the road from Ruth’s house. Beside Susie’s grave is a marker for her son Robert, whose body still hasn’t come home, but whose life is remembered by his nieces.
“I think it would be nice to know that he’s there and I think she would like that,” Susan said.
There, next to his mama, who loved him bigger than the Ouachitas.
If you’ve lost a loved one whose remains still haven’t come home from war, we’d love to hear from you and share your story. Email Cassandra Webb at firstname.lastname@example.org