U.S. Marine Corps Pvt. Vernon Paul Keaton, 18, was killed along with 428 of his shipmates during the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, while serving on the USS Oklahoma.
Hit by numerous torpedoes, the USS Oklahoma and several battle and transport ships in the U.S. Pacific Fleet disappeared that day after being sunk during a devastating surprise military attack led by the Japanese. The shocking assault caused the U.S. to join World War II. Yet, Pvt. Keaton’s remains were trapped with hundreds of other Marines and servicemen under the waters until 1947, when the U.S. government raised the ship and tried to identify the bodies of hundreds of troops.
Nearly 76 years later, Keaton’s remains, identified by modern DNA testing by the Department of Defense, was brought home to some of his remaining family in Oklahoma City last night (on Nov. 14th). The young Marine’s sacrifice was recognized with a water arch provided by Will Rogers World Airport firefighters as his Delta Airlines flight taxied on a secluded airport runway.
A solemn ceremony followed as a Marine Corps Honor Guard carry team from Rocket Battery F, 2nd Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division, based in Oklahoma City at the Marine Corps Reserve Center, was led by team leader 1st Sgt. Kerwin Williams.
The team transferred Keaton’s remains from the plane to a hearse that later drove to the Criswell Funeral Home in Ada, Oklahoma. Several members of a TSA Honor Guard also honored the fallen Marine and the hearse was escorted on its journey by members of the Oklahoma Patriot Riders.
Keaton’s niece, Sandra Sue Lewis of Weleetka, Oklahoma, apologized for arriving late to the ceremony due to a mix up on the arrival date of her uncle’s remains. She wiped away tears when she was greeted by the honor guards, bikers and by Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Nicholas Brundige, an assistant Marine Corps funeral director, Marine Headquarters, Washington D.C. Brundige volunteered to escort the Marine’s remains from Offutt Air Force Base and will stay with the remains until Keaton is buried Thursday.
Lewis said another niece provided a DNA sample just in case her family was a match to Keaton’s DNA.
“He’s my uncle,” Lewis said. “It means a whole lot. I was raised by my grandmother and she always said he was coming home.”
Brundige said it was an amazing feeling to help bring closure to Keaton’s family.
“He was only 18 when he perished on that infamous day and he was fairly new to the Corps. We get quite a few Marines from the World War II era, but this is the first one from Pearl Harbor,” Brundige said.
He said he believes more Marines and sailors from Pearl Harbor will be identified in the years to come through mitochondrial DNA testing.
U.S. Navy personnel spent six months after the Pearl Harbor attack recovering the remains of the drowned crew on the USS Oklahoma.
They were then interred in Nu’uana and Halawa Cemeteries. In September of 1947, the American Graves Registration Service members went to the two cemeteries and disinterred the troops and sent them to the Central Identification Laboratory at Schofield Barracks at Oahu, Hawaii, but the staff then was only able to identify 35 servicemen.
The unidentified servicemen were deemed by a military board as “unrecoverable” and they were buried in 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (a.k.a. the Punchbowl). Two years ago, the U.S. Dept. of Defense announced it would exhume the remains of the sailors and Marines from the Punchbowl and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency began working to find and match relatives’ mitochondrial DNA with that of the troops’ remains.
Lewis said she’s glad her uncle is home at last.
“He’s going to be buried right close to his mom and dad,” she said.
Keaton will be buried Thursday, Nov. 16, with full military honors in Lula, Oklahoma (an unincorporated community southeast of Ada, Oklahoma).
Story by Kevan Goff-Parker