Three quarters of a century later, he’s home.
He arrived under blue skies on Memorial Day, beneath the fluttering flag he died defending, inside Batavia’s River Hills Memorial Park. That’s where a grateful community that never knew him gathered not just to greet him, but to salute.
Navy Radioman 2nd Class Walter H. Backman, 22, died with more than 400 other crewmen on the USS Oklahoma on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor. Monday, his remains were finally laid to rest.
“Grandma and grandpa aren’t here,” Walt Pickens, Backman’s nephew, said as he offered his final remarks beside the flag-draped casket.
But the sailor still received a proper funeral with military honors. It began in Aurora with a prayer service at The Healy Chapel.
“I never met him,” Pickens told an audience full of veterans inside the chapel. “I wasn’t born until five years after he was killed.”
Rather, Pickens shared the memories of Backman that still survive within his family, which lost Backman generations ago. Backman’s parents are buried near his grave in Batavia. A memorial headstone has also been in place at the cemetery for years. Backman had moved to Aurora after growing up in North Dakota.
“I do remember my mother, his younger sister, saying that she was sure that she’d see him in heaven one day,” Pickens said.
One living cousin, who couldn’t attend the service, remembered Backman as “a very nice and very caring young man,” Pickens said. Others said he had a strong work ethic.
“I remember many times my mama and grandmama telling me about how hard a worker he was,” Pickens said. “He quit school in the eighth grade in order to help my granddaddy farm the farm in North Dakota. And during the winter months, when farming was shut down, he went with granddaddy into the coal mines to work.”
Backman was born in 1919 in Wilton, North Dakota. He joined the Navy in 1938 and served as a radioman. The day the Japanese attacked, he was on duty in the radio compartment of the USS Oklahoma.
The battleship sustained multiple torpedo hits and capsized quickly, leading to the death of Backman and hundreds of other crewmen. The Navy spent three years recovering the remains of the sailors trapped on the ship, but could identify only 35.
The others would be interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific — the Punchbowl — in Honolulu. In October 1949, a military board classified those whose remains could not be identified, including Backman, as non-recoverable.
Then, in 2015, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency set out to identify the unidentified remains.
Through an analysis of DNA, dental and anthropological information, as well as other circumstantial evidence, Backman’s remains were finally found, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
It said he was accounted for on July 17, 2017.
Though Backman’s name is recorded on the Courts of the Missing at the Punchbowl, a rosette will be placed next to his name to note the discovery of his remains.
Near the end of Monday’s prayer service, Pickens remarked on how many people — many of them strangers — decided to honor his uncle this Memorial Day.
“I thank you so much for coming,” Pickens said. “I can’t really express how much that means to me and to the rest of my family.”
Moments later, the casket holding Backman’s remains was driven north, to Batavia. People waited along the processional route, in the heat, to pay their respects to the fallen soldier. Still others gathered at the cemetery, waiting for his hearse.
When it arrived, the crowd at the cemetery saluted Backman’s casket, which was delivered to his grave along a path marked by American flags that fluttered in the breeze.
Seventy-six years after Backman died defending that flag, it still waves.