ADA, Okla. — Sandra Lewis never thought that her uncle, who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor, would be buried in an Oklahoma cemetery someday.

The body of Lewis’ uncle, Pvt. Vernon “Buck” Keaton, has been buried in a Hawaiian grave for the past seven decades. But his remains will be placed on a plane soon and flown to Oklahoma, where he will be buried next to his parents.

Keaton’s graveside service is set for 2 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Lula Cemetery, about 14 miles south of Allen. The service is open to the public, especially veterans.

Lewis said several veterans would probably attend the service, along with some of her relatives and friends.

“I work in Henryetta, and there’s a lot of veterans over there,” she said. “I think they’re all planning to be there.”

DNA testing

Lewis was 2 years old when her uncle, a U.S. Marine, died in the Dec. 7, 1941, attacks on Pearl Harbor. He was one of more than 400 soldiers and Marines who died when the USS Oklahoma sank during the attacks.

Thirty-five crew members were positively identified and buried in the years immediately following the attacks, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. The remains of the other service members were later removed from the ship and buried as unknowns in two Hawaiian cemeteries.

By 1950, all unidentified remains linked to the USS Oklahoma were reburied as unknowns at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu — also known as “The Punchbowl.”

in April 2015, the Department of Defense announced that it was exhuming the remains of up to 388 unaccounted-for sailors and Marines associated with the USS Oklahoma. The remains would be analyzed in hopes that they could be identified and returned to their families if that was what the family wanted.

The announcement came two years after the POW/MIA Accounting Agency contacted D.J. Gentry, a cousin of Keaton’s mother who is also related to his niece, Sandra Lewis. The agency had found Gentry on Ancestry.com, a website that helps people discover their family’s stories, and linked her to Keaton.

“They called and asked me if I knew the name, and I said, ‘Well, sure, that’s my mom’s cousin,’” said Gentry. “They said, ‘Do you know the story?’ And I said, ‘All I know is that he died at Pearl Harbor.’”

Agency representatives told Gentry that Keaton was stationed on the USS Oklahoma at the time of the Pearl Harbor attacks. He was originally considered missing in action, but in reality, he was buried along with several hundred other soldiers who died in the attacks.

The agency asked Gentry to provide a DNA sample which would establish the link between her and Keaton, and she agreed.

“Of course, I didn’t just provide that willy-nilly,” she said. “I had to know the phone numbers, names and all that sort of thing so that I would be assured that they were who they were saying they were.”

The agency supplied that information to Gentry and sent her a specimen kit, which she returned with her DNA sample.

Gentry did not hear from the agency again until about a year ago when she called to find out how the identification process was going. The agency said it was identifying the sailors from the USS Oklahoma before turning its attention to the seven Marines on the ship.

In the meantime, Gentry tracked down Lewis, who was Keaton’s closest living relative, and told her that the POW/MIA Agency was working on identifying his body.

Lewis, who was raised by Keaton’s parents, grew up hearing stories about her uncle and seeing his picture. She said she couldn’t believe her uncle’s remains had been identified after nearly 76 years.

“It had been so long,” she said. “But I was glad.”

Bringing him home

Earlier this year, the agency called D.J. Gentry to say that it had completed the identification process and her DNA sample matched Keaton’s. The agency also said it was ready to meet with Gentry and Lewis and begin preparations to bring his remains to Oklahoma if the family wanted.

Keaton was from Texas, but his surviving relatives live in Oklahoma.

In late September, Gentry and Lewis met with the POW/MIA Agency’s forensic team for a briefing on the identification process. The team also helped Gentry and Lewis make final preparations for bringing Keaton’s body to Oklahoma.

Sometime next week, a sergeant from Tinker Air Force Base will fly to Hawaii to escort Keaton’s remains to Oklahoma. A military ceremony will take place when his remains are put on the plane, and another ceremony will mark his arrival at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City.

Criswell Funeral Home in Ada will accept Keaton’s remains and bring them to Ada in preparation for the graveside service the following day.

‘Proud to be part of this’

Lewis knew all along that her uncle had died in Pearl Harbor, but she didn’t have the whole story. Now, she knows the rest of the story.

She said she was glad to know that her long-lost uncle would be buried in Oklahoma.

“I’m just happy that it’s going to be over and happy that he’s going to be back,” she said.

For her part, Gentry said she has always been proud of America’s veterans, but Keaton’s story has made her appreciate them even more.’

“The things that the veterans have gone through — not only the ultimate sacrifice, but all of the sacrifices that were made on a day-to-day basis just for their own survival,” she said. “It was for us and our security and our safety to keep America going. That makes me extremely proud to be part of this.”


Swanson writes for The Ada News, a CNHI News Service publication.

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