This profile ran on p. 33 of the June 2016 issue of Tulane magazine.
Kristen Baker was just 9 years old when her father died unexpectedly, and she remembers how not knowing what happened sharpened the pain of grief.
“It took several months before the reports came back,” says the Georgia native, now 32. “That made his death even harder.”
More than two decades later, Baker (A&S ’04, M ’06) is doing her best to provide closure for families as the lead archaeologist in a nonprofit’s effort to recover the remains of hundreds of U.S. Marines killed in the bloody 1943 battle of Tarawa. In March 2015 she found a long-lost a trench known as Cemetery 27, which has yielded more than 45 Marines, including a Medal of Honor recipient, making it the largest single-site recovery in U.S. history.
The battle for Tarawa was nasty, brutish and short, taking the lives of more than 1,100 Americans and 5,000 Japanese defenders in just 76 hours. The dead were hastily buried, and military officials who returned after the war found fewer than half. Families of the missing were told they had been buried at sea or otherwise accounted for.
Mark Noah, founder of History Flight, Inc., learned of the long-buried mess in 2007 from an obscure military report. The next year he began sending teams armed with the latest technology to scour the hot, polluted, crowded sands of a tiny island for the lost graves.
After earning her master’s in anthropology, Baker did forensic work with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. In 2008 she took a job with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (now called the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency), the agency tasked with the recovery of U.S. battlefield remains. She spent the next several years “camping in the woods” in places like Vietnam and Papua New Guinea.
Noah hired Baker to helm History Flight’s Tarawa project in 2013. She hit the ground running, recovering the remains of Pvt. Randolph Allen after a month on the job. Despite a JPAC scientist’s dismissal of the site as unpromising, Baker obtained permission to dig exploratory trenches in a private shipping yard in March 2015. On day one, the team found the first of dozens of Marine skeletons; Baker had found Cemetery 27.
Baker worked the excavation in blazing tropical heat nearly every day for the next three months, exposing and carefully removing sometimes-brittle bones. The team documented all remains in a makeshift local lab, including collection of tissue for DNA testing and examination by dental experts, before turning the remains over to DPAA for official identification.
“Kristen has an incredible focus and personal sense of perfection,” says Jay Silverstein, an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii who has worked on Tarawa. “The Cemetery 27 excavations were done to a truly high professional standard.”
But hundreds more Marines still lie sleeping in the sands of Tarawa, and Kristen Baker hasn’t stopped looking for them.
“Cemetery 27 has been a kind of crown jewel for us,” she says. “But we want to bring them all home. They deserve that respect, and so do their families.”