Let none remain unknown

December 6, 2020
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Type “Pearl Harbor vet returns home Joplin Globe” into Google and the headlines and their stories pop up, one after another:

Funeral planned for Baxter Springs sailor who died at Pearl Harbor (Sep 2, 2020)

BAXTER SPRINGS, Kan. — A Baxter Springs sailor who was killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor and who was listed as missing in action for more than 70 years will be laid to rest in his hometown Saturday, surrounded by surviving family.

Coming home:  Family to receive remains of sailor who died at Pearl Harbor (Dec 6, 2017)

DIAMOND, Mo. — Daniel Goodwin and his wife, Helen, frantically jumped out of bed early on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, awakened by loud explosions close to their Honolulu home across from Hickam Field.

Pearl Harbor casualty brought home to Kansas almost 75 years later (May 24, 2016)

PARSONS, Kan. — Dale Pearce’s family members kept the telegram from December 1941 that informed them that the Navy seaman second class was missing after the Pearl Harbor attack.

They kept his medals, including a Purple Heart, and a folded American flag, but no remains of the 21-year-old are under the red granite tombstone at a hilly cemetery near Dennis, Kansas. On Tuesday, just days before Memorial Day, Pearce’s remains were brought back to Kansas. His relatives will hold a funeral Thursday on what would have been Pearce’s 96th birthday.

Drop the Joplin Globe from the search and the page fills with headlines scattered from Bowie Texas, Richmond Virginia, Ontonagon Michigan, Bessemer Alabama, Wabasha Minnesota and hometown after hometown across America.

And while each subject has a different name, the stories are all the same.

Each was at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii the morning of the Japanese surprise attack on December 7th, 1941 and each died as a result of that attack.  Most were aboard the USS Oklahoma that capsized and trapped them inside the hull, others from the USS West Virginia and USS California.  Their bodies too badly marred and burned to be identified with the technology of the time.

As their remains were recovered during the salvage operations that followed, they were buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (more commonly known today as the Punchbowl) in Honolulu, Hawaii.

And it was there, just a few miles to the southeast from where the horror of war felled them that peaceful Sunday morn that they had remained for over seven decades.  Over two thousand miles from the western shore of the country they died for and hundreds more miles from the towns they called home.

That is until 2015 when the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) exhumed the USS Oklahoma’s remaining unknowns (there had been five identified from a 2003 disinterment and one in 2007) and a concerted effort using the DNA technology of today was made to identify the rest.

In 2017 the project was expanded to include the 35 unknowns from the USS West Virginia and in 2018, 25 from the USS California were exhumed for identification analysis.

According to a December 6, 2019 press release the project has allowed 236 Oklahoma crewmen to return home with another 8 from the West Virginia.

A review of the list of recently accounted shows no success yet with the California’s crew, but an additional 41 from the Oklahoma and 3 more from the West Virginia have been identified and have either already arrived or are on their way home since that 2019 press release.

That’s a total of almost 300 men returned home to their families.  Families that until now had only the stories passed down over the years and perhaps an old letter or photo or two if lucky.  Families that until now had spent years with but an empty space under the marker and a feeling of incomplete in their hearts.

To the cynical among us, and yes, sadly they are among us, comes a “Why are we spending money on the dead when so many living need it now?”

To which I simply answer:  Because we can.  Because we owe it not only to them, but to ourselves and to future generations.

That it stands for the ages that if you pay the ultimate sacrifice for this nation, we will do whatever we can, however long it takes, to ensure that you are never forgotten.

On a closing note, as of this writing the list of survivors who were on the USS Arizona, December 7, 1941 is down to two: Lou Conter, 98, of Grass Valley, California, and Ken Potts, 98, of Provo, Utah.  And according to the department of Veterans Affairs we are losing almost 300 World War II veterans per day.

And with that, a solemn thank you to the generation that will always be The Greatest.

(This column appears in the December 6, 2020 edition of the Joplin Globe)

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