Discovering Heroes: Fallen WWII Marine finally comes home
Staff Sgt. Wesley L. Kroenung was 24 years old when he made the commitment to join the United States Marine Corps and become a Marine Corps combat cameraman. Before long, Kroenung found himself storming the shores of Tarawa, where he would ultimately make the greatest sacrifice by laying down his life for his country.
Kroenung was a talented photographer before joining the Marine Corps due to the teachings of his father. Therefore, it was only natural he would be trained in the profession as a combat photographer.
In the summer of 1943, a number of talented photographers were selected for training at the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Kroenung was among them. He learned to compose shots, handle cameras and tell a story that would align with the Corps’ public relations needs.
Today, the combat photographer M.O.S. School is called Defense Information School and located in Fort Meade, Maryland.
Due to Kroenung’s proficiency in photography, he earned high grades in his class and would later be stationed in Hawaii before receiving orders en route to board the PBY Catalina flying boat, and set off to Tarawa.
“He loved his instructors and even more so loved his job,” said Nancy, Staff Sgt. Kroenung’s sister.
Nancy Lee, the younger sister of Kroenung, said her upbringing after the death of her brother was very difficult. Nancy was only 14 months old when the news came. Unfortunately, she didn’t get to personally know him, however, she always felt that his presence impacted the family greatly.
“This shattered my father, he was never the same,” said Nancy.
Nancy said her father turned to alcoholism as a coping mechanism after the loss of his son. Wesley was a prominent figure in the family, and the loss of his life greatly affected his loved ones.
“He resorted to alcohol as a way to mask the pain of losing a child,” said Nancy. “It wasn’t until I had kids of my own that I began to understand what he went through.”
Nancy remembers that the news of Kroenung’s death came on Christmas, turning what is a cheerful time for most into a dark time for their family.
“We never really talked about Wesley, probably because it was too painful,” said Nancy. “My father passed away never knowing what happened to his son.”
Though the majority of the people who knew Kroenung have already passed away, his legacy lives on. Harry Jackson, an accomplished artist and fellow Marine, sculpted a work of art that depicted the scene he saw that day. Jackson was standing feet away from Kroenung when the mortar round hit and killed him. Jackson recounted the moment in his painting “Salvatur Mundi Crucified in Betio Amnion.” It is a 6 feet tall painting that portray what happened to Kroenung and it hangs in Jackson’s Cody museum to this day.
Kroenung’s reunion to the states and his family is a long awaited moment that has finally come to fruition. Almost 76 years after his death; Kroenung is finally being brought home at last.
“Kroenung, along with hundreds of men were part of the greatest generation,” said Cmdr. Don Biadog, the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar chaplain. “He made the ultimate sacrifice so that we wouldn’t have to today.”
During the Battle of Tarawa, Marines stormed the enemy as a barrage of bullets and mortar rounds soared toward them and yet they never faltered. They persisted and fought for each other and the Marines that had fallen before them.
“I’m just so happy that we are able to finally able to bring Wesley home,” said Nancy. “He can finally have a proper burial and we are able to have closure.”
Kroenung was laid to rest at the Miramar National Cemetery August 14, 2019. Kroenung was originally buried on the island with many other men, who lost their life that day, and due to DNA testing the family was identified, and a hero has returned home.