EDITORIAL: Thankfully, the remains of USS Oklahoma servicemen finally come home
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Thank you for your service, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Walter H. Backman.
It’s been a long time coming for you to make it home.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Backman was on duty in the radio compartment of the USS Oklahoma when the ship was attacked at Pearl Harbor by Japanese aircraft. The ship capsized. Backman, 22, was one of 429 crewmen who died.
Through DNA analysis, Backman’s remains were identified, finally, last year. He will be buried on Monday, Memorial Day, with military honors near his parents’ graves at River Hills Memorial Park in Batavia. A memorial headstone has been in place at the cemetery for years for Backman, who grew up in North Dakota before moving to Aurora.
Thank you, too, Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class William F. Hellstern, 20, of Peoria. He also was on the USS Oklahoma and only recently were his remains identified. He was buried earlier this month in Colorado.
Their journeys home took 76 years.
Immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Navy personnel devoted more than two years to recovering the remains of the lost service members. But it wasn’t until 1947 that the American Graves Registration Service began the process of trying to identify bodies. Identification was confirmed for 35 men aboard the USS Oklahoma, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
The other remains from the USS Oklahoma, considered “non-recoverable” by the military in 1949, were buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl. The bodies of Backman and Hellstern were in that group.
In 2015, a deputy defense secretary ordered that graves of the unknown from the USS Oklahoma be exhumed for another try at identification. The project has identified six service members born in Illinois: Fireman 1st Class Michael Galajdik, 25, of Joliet; Fireman 2nd Class Martin A. Gara, 20, of Chicago; Hellstern; Fireman 3rd Class John H. Lindsley, 22, of Waukegan; Signalman 3rd Class Charles E. Nix, 26, of Danville, and Seaman 1st Class Harold W. Roesch, 25, of Rockford.
Hellstern’s nephew, Ted Hummell, told KUNC Community Radio for Northern Colorado that three years ago he got a call requesting a cheek swab for DNA analysis from the military’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
It took a few years for the agency to confirm that they had found Hellstern’s remains.
“I started bawling, just started bawling, because I’ve grown up with this,” Hummell told the radio station of his reaction to the identification. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Backman’s nephew, Walt Pickens, told the Daily Herald he wishes his mother, aunt and grandmother could have lived long enough to hear the news about the identification. “It would’ve given them closure,” he said. “They were never really able to get that.”
Closure was impossible for families of tens of thousands of Americans who served in World War II. In its announcement that Backman’s remains were being sent home, the Defense/POW MIA Accounting Agency said 72,917 service members from World War II are still unaccounted for. About 26,000 are considered “possibly recoverable.”
The agency’s website lists 3,713 service members from Illinois whose bodies were “not recovered” from World War II. Fourteen were on the USS Oklahoma: Marley R. Arthurholtz; Earl Paul Baum; Leslie Phillip Delles; Elmer Edwin Drefahl; William Fred Gusie; Robert Emile Halterman; Robert Joseph Harr; Herbert B. Jacobson; William August Klasing; Adolph John Loebach; Michael Malek; John F. Middleswart; George F. Price, and Albert L. Williams.
On this Memorial Day, we honor every service member who gave his or her life for this country. Those who went missing, or are yet to be identified, are not forgotten.
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