Town prepares to welcome home Willard Aldridge, 76 years after his death at Pearl Harbor

Willard Henry Aldridge
Willard Henry Aldridge Courtesy

Out in Ashland in southwest Kansas where the wildfires raged out of control last spring and neighbors, friends and strangers pitched into help, people have have now turned their focus this spring into the preparations for Willard Henry Aldridge's return home.

Local high school members in the honors program, called SHOW, have volunteered to meet his plane later this month when it flies into Dodge City to provide an honor escort into Ashland.

Patriot Guard riders and and local members of the VFW Post will greet the remains of Navy Seaman First Class Aldridge who lost his life aboard the USS Oklahoma on Dec. 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor.

The thing is most of those Ashland residents making the preparations for Seaman Aldridge never knew the man.

He disappeared more than 76 years ago — killed in battle. He was trapped aboard the Oklahoma, which was moored at Fort Island, Pearl Harbor. He was listed among the casualties two weeks after the attack.

The battleship received multiple torpedo hits on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, causing the ship to quickly capsize. Four hundred and twenty-nine sailors on the ship died that morning, including Aldridge.

In recent years, advances in DNA research have enabled military authorities to identify remains of the dead, many of whom were buried in mass graves. Aldridge's family was notified in 2013 that there was a possibility that his remains might be identified. Relatives provided DNA and in 2015, the family was contacted that a match had been found, according to Ray Sumners, a nephew living in Colorado.

Seaman Aldridge will be buried May 26 with full military honors in the Highland Cemetery in Ashland where his parents, grandparents and other family members are already buried. On May 25, a six-person Navy Honor Guard will bring him to Ashland along with the high school students and Patriot Guard. And at 11 a.m. on the 26th, there will be a processional from the Schilling Funeral Home on Main Street to the cemetery.

His name is recorded on the Courts of the Missing at the Punchbowl in Hawaii, along with the others who are missing from World War II. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.

Seaman Aldridge was born Aug. 26, 1921 at his family's farm, north of Sitka. He was the sixth of 10 children born to John and Zola Irene Aldridge. All of his immediate family have died. His closest relatives are nephews.

The local VFW post No. 7770 in Ashland was named after Seaman Aldridge after he was killed in 1941. His brother, William, (who died in 2006) served as the State Commander of the VFW from 1964 to 1965.

"For me, this is history," said Ray Sumners, a nephew, who spent 31 years serving in the military. "I was so young when this happened."

The Aldridge farmily, Sumners said, seldom spoke of Seaman Aldridge.

"The old farm burned and afterward my grandfather moved to Tuscon," Sumners said. "They didn't buy or store fancy stuff that wasn't utilitarian. So, the condolence letter from the Navy, I just have a file copy.

"Back in those days, people didn't talk about those things. My mom has a memory case pin that has a big pearl on it that has written on it 'Remember Pearl Harbor.' They were farming people and farm people talk about hogs and the price of grain. You are lucky if you get them to say that."

Seaman Aldridge's mother died when he was 8 years old. He grew up during the Great Depression, helping his family on the farm. That part of the state was some of the hardest hit during the historic Dust Bowl storms in the 1930s.

In 1940, he enlisted in the Navy at Great Bend.

For his time in service, he earned the Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon, American Defense Medal with one battle star, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with one battle star and the World War II Victory medal.

Sumners said that from Dec. 9, 1941 through June 1944, the Navy recovered the remains of the dead from the Pearl Harbor attack and mixed the remains in two military cemeteries in Honolulu. They were interred simply as the "unknowns."

In 2003, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command disinterred a single casket that contained the partial remains of about 100 crew members from the USS Oklahoma.

Advancements in DNA allowed identification of the remains, and family members were sought out. The remains were matched with mitochondrial DNA samples. Samples from Aldridge family members provided to the Navy included Seaman Aldridge's sister Ethel McCauly who was still living at that point, Ethel's daughter Alice Lindamood, Richard Aldridge and Ray Sumners.

In Ashland, people are preparing to welcome Seaman Aldridge back home.