When it comes to his Uncle Alberic, Clement McDonald is one attentive nephew.

“He leaves Hawaii on the 13th of September at about 4:30 in the afternoon,” McDonald said last week. “And then he’s going to arrive in Atlanta on the 14th at 7:15 a.m. Then they’ll change planes and he will actually arrive in Boston on the 14th at 12:52 in the afternoon.”

From there, escorted by the Maine State Police, “Uncle Brick,” who died fighting for his country in World War II, will travel up through Maine to his hometown of Caribou and a family that has long prayed for this moment.

“I’m glad to see it finally come to fruition where he’s laid to rest where he belongs,” said McDonald from his home in Oviedo, Florida.

Seventy-five years ago this past January, at the tender age of 17, Alberic M. Blanchette bade farewell to his parents, Benjamin and Albertine, his sisters, Iris, Louann and Ruth, and his brother, Ludger, and went off to save the world.

By all accounts a happy-go-lucky kid with a strong patriotic streak and a determination to do his part as a young Marine in World War II, Brick headed first to the recruiting station in Augusta and then on to basic training at Parris Island, S.C.


From there, standing just 5 feet 5 inches and weighing a wiry 140 pounds, he volunteered to join the elite 1st Marine Raider Battalion – one of the first special forces units to see combat in the war.

And see combat he did. He landed behind enemy lines on Tulagi in the British Solomon Islands, where some of the fiercest fighting in the war occurred.

He attacked enemy forces on Savo Island and fought in a raid on a Japanese supply base at Guadalcanal. He helped defend the Henderson Field airstrip on Guadalcanal against repeated enemy assaults in what became known as the Battle of Bloody Ridge.

Weary from months of intense battle, Brick’s unit withdrew in October 1942 to Noumea, New Caledonia, for what was then called “rest and relaxation.”

And, it appears, a little romance. According to military records obtained by his nephew, Pfc. Blanchette went AWOL twice – each time for only a few hours in the evening – and was busted back to private and transferred out of the Raiders.

“I think he met a girl,” McDonald surmised. “And he was out trying to see this girl before he left again because I’m sure he knew he was going back into the fight.”


McDonald, born in 1957, missed his Uncle Brick by 15 years. Yet he speaks as if he knew him – part from family lore, another part from the fact that McDonald himself joined the Navy right out of Caribou High School and served 20 years before retiring in 1997.

“I’m sure after what he saw with the Rangers, he thought, ‘They can’t do anything to me. I’ve seen worse things than them busting me down to private,’ ” McDonald said. “He was 18, 19 years old. He had no fear.”

By now attached to Company K, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, Brick boarded the transport USS Arthur Middleton on Nov. 17, 1943, and headed for Tarawa, a heavily fortified Japanese stronghold in the Gilbert Islands.

The battle, which stretched over four long days, took the lives of 1,006 Marines. Brick, as part of the first assault wave that faced blistering fire from four directions, was among them.

His body, like so many others, first was buried in a makeshift cemetery on the island. Because Brick’s remains were among the 103 that could not be identified, he was first listed as missing in action and then, in February 1944, finally declared killed in action.

Back home in Caribou, his grieving family held a Roman Catholic funeral and purchased a plot at the Old Holy Rosary Cemetery, where they placed a marker in Brick’s name.


But an empty grave provides precious little comfort. And as the years became decades, the Blanchette family agonized over the painful prospect that Brick, with his thirst for adventure and that what-me-worry smile, might never find his way home to northern Maine.

Still, even in death, it felt like he never stopped trying.

Just before he shipped out to Tarawa, Brick wrote his older sister, Iris, that she should look for a Christmas present in the mail. Because the gift was still being made and he was shipping out, he explained, he’d paid a Marine buddy from Caribou to mail it to Iris once it was finished.

But the package, much to Iris’ disappointment, never came.

Years later, Iris’ daughter, Helen, was browsing through an antique shop in Presque Isle when she came across a silver bracelet with name “Iris” engraved on it next to a palm tree. Also etched into the metal were “1943” and “South Pacific.”

Stunned, Helen purchased the bracelet and rushed it to her mother.


They then reached out to the other Marine’s family – he’d since died – to learn that he’d sold many of his belongings to an antique shop in Caribou. When that shop shut down, it turned out, the inventory – silver bracelet included – went to the shop in Presque Isle.

“I just know it’s from Brick,” Iris told the Aroostook Republican four years ago as she traced her finger over the engraving. “I mean, what are the chances?”

Iris, who died in 2015, was McDonald’s mother. A military history buff, he’d already spent a few years researching Uncle Brick’s fate with the help of the Rick Stone & Family Charitable Foundation – a Texas-based organization dedicated to helping families fill in the blanks around loved ones lost to the fog of war.

Stone, a former police chief, once developed a forensic process for identifying deceased crime victims. Starting in 2011, he spent two years applying the same techniques – known as Random Instant Statistical Correlation – for what is now the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

His first case: the 523 unaccounted for Marines who fought and died in the Battle of Tarawa.

“Slowly, over the years, you come to think of them as your kids,” Stone said in an interview from Glen Rose, Texas. “You’re reading the file, finding out where they went to school, what their mom wrote to the agency, what the family concerns were.”


McDonald first contacted Stone in 2013 seeking information on Uncle Brick. Stone responded with a full report on the Battle of Tarawa, including the fact that of the 523 missing Marines, 103 remains had been exhumed from battlefield cemeteries scattered across the island and reinterred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu.

Over each grave was a stone marked “Unknown.”

Pvt. Alberic Blanchette, Stone reported to McDonald, was likely killed as the battle commenced – a horrifying few hours when several of the landing craft became hung up on a reef some 600 yards offshore amid fierce artillery and small arms fire from the Japanese.

That information, while useful, provided small solace to the family with its still-empty grave. So, McDonald made his elderly mother a promise.

“If he is ever found and identified, I will see that he gets back to where he belongs,” he vowed.

Around the same time, McDonald contacted the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and asked how he could assist in the search. The agency, which now uses maternal DNA to identify fallen military members, sent him a swab to capture his genetic code and enter it into the Tarawa database.


In the last 11 months, the agency has identified 171 remains of fallen soldiers and sailors. The work is never-ending: From World War II alone, 73,012 Americans who died fighting for their country are still unaccounted for.

Last October, Brick’s remains were once again disinterred and tested.

Then in July, a Marine casualty assistance officer contacted McDonald with the breathtaking news: Pvt. Blanchette, missing for almost three quarters of a century, had been found.

McDonald first called his aunt Louann in Louisiana, who was just 4 when her big brother went off to war and is the only surviving member of Brick’s immediate family.

Word then spread quickly throughout the extended family, many of whom still live in and around Caribou.

At Stone’s family foundation, where virtually everyone has worked at one time or another on Brick’s case, the news validated years of painstaking research.


“If you bring one home, it’s a tremendous feeling,” Stone said. “And the real beneficiaries are the families. We’re thrilled for them.”

Brick’s flag-draped casket will arrive under police escort at Mockler Funeral Home in Caribou on Thursday evening.

Hurricane Irma permitting, McDonald will come on Friday for Uncle Brick’s Mass of Christian burial the following Monday at Old Holy Rosary Cemetery.

A military honor guard will salute their fallen comrade. Representatives of Gov. Paul LePage and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins will pay their respects, as will the Maine chapter of the Patriot Riders of America.

Then, as Uncle Brick is finally laid to rest, the mournful strains of taps will fill the late-summer air.

“It’s been an honor for me to see him brought home like this,” said McDonald, a loyal nephew if ever there was one. “It’s just an honor.”


So, fellow Mainers, keep an eye out come Thursday afternoon if you’re out on the interstate. Brick Blanchette, the smiling kid from Aroostook County, is coming home from war.

At last.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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