Pearl Harbor sailor’s remains return home to Kansas for burial

Dale Pearce
Dale Pearce Courtesy photo

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Pleasant Hill Cemetery.

Navy Seaman 2nd Class Dale Pearce is finally coming home.

The Kansas farm boy from Labette County was serving on the USS Oklahoma the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. The ship received multiple torpedo hits when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. It capsized within minutes, taking more than 400 men to their deaths, including Pearce.

Now, nearly 75 years after the attack, Pearce’s remains will return to Kansas and be buried Thursday, next to his mother in his hometown cemetery.

Ralph Pearce, a cousin, was 4 1/2 years old when the attack took place.

On the day Pearl Harbor happened, I was outside playing on my tricycle. I remember going inside and all the folks were listening to the radio. I still remember the looks on their faces that something was wrong.

Ralph Pearce, cousin of Pearl Harbor seaman

“On the day Pearl Harbor happened, I was outside playing on my tricycle,” said Ralph Pearce, now 79. “I remember going inside and all the folks were listening to the radio.

“I still remember the looks on their faces that something was wrong.”

A few days later, the family received a telegram – Dale Pearce was missing.

Another cousin, Pierre Heit, was 14 when the family heard the news about Pearl Harbor and Dale.

“He used to work for my father,” Heit said. “I was always with him.

“When me and my brother were real young, we had a red wagon. … Dale used to pull me and Vernon around in that wagon.”

In search of DNA

The USS Oklahoma was in berth F-5 of Battleship Row on Dec. 7, 1941. The ship took three torpedo hits within minutes after the attack began shortly before 8 a.m. In all, it would take nine torpedo blows.

In less than 12 minutes, the ship rolled over, trapping many of the sailors.

The remains of 35 crew members were positively identified in the years immediately following the attack. But 429 sailors and Marines – including Pearce – were killed or missing. In 1949, a military board classified them as “non-recoverable.”

According to military records sent to the Pearce family, their cousin’s remains were technically recovered about a year after the attack.

“Those bodies were pretty well decayed, the bones were all intermingled,” Ralph Pearce said. “The bones were all buried in mass graves.”

Most of the remains were buried in the Punch Bowl National Cemetery in Hawaii.

In recent years, advances in DNA research have enabled military authorities to identify remains of the long-dead. The remains from the mass graves were then examined.

Since the early 1990s, the Department of Defense DNA Registry has conducted a massive program to catalog the DNA of present and past members of the armed forces.

Having their family member back is a sense of closure, said Pam Mathis, Ralph Pearce’s daughter.

“It is a huge honor for him to be coming home and identified after all these years,” Mathis said.

To identify Pearce’s remains, scientists from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency used dental comparisons and family DNA to match Pearce’s records.

Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, more than 400,000 died, according to a news release issued Thursday by the Department of Defense.

Honoring Dale Pearce

The tiny town of Dennis is about eight miles west of Parsons.

It has about 300 residents, most connected to farming, Ralph Pearce said.

Dale Pearce was the youngest of 13 children. His mother died when he was 12.

“My folks got married and moved in with his father to help raise him,” Ralph Pearce said. “They raised him like a son.”

But the 1930s were tough times, not just in Kansas but across the nation.

Heit’s father ran the local grain elevator, where Dale Pearce worked as a teenager driving trucks.

Heit remembers when Dale Pearce hitched a freight train to Arizona to visit one of his older brothers. He hitched another train back to Kansas; he was supposed to hop off in Cherryvale but overslept and ended up in neighboring Thayer instead.

“We were all sitting at the supper table when he called to come pick him up,” Heit said. “You wouldn’t believe how black he was from all that train smoke.”

Pearce finally left Dennis to join the Navy. He returned to visit on occasion.

Every time he came home, he’d always bring me a sailor’s hat. I’d wear that thing until it was plumb wore out.

Pierre Heit, cousin of Pearl Harbor seaman

“Every time he came home, he’d always bring me a sailor’s hat,” Heit said. “I’d wear that thing until it was plumb wore out.”

Military burial

After Pearl Harbor, the family placed a tombstone in the Pleasant Valley Cemetery in Dennis. It says simply that Dale Pearce was lost at Pearl Harbor.

On Tuesday, the remains of Dale Pearce will be flown by military escort to Tulsa, where his casket will be met by family members and escorted by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and local police to Parsons.

His funeral will be at 2 p.m. Thursday at Faith United Methodist Church.

From there, Pearce’s remains will be escorted by American Legion and Patriot Guard riders to the Pleasant Hill Cemetery, where he will be buried with full military honors next to the people who loved him.

“He will be buried next to his mother,” Ralph Pearce said. “My folks are buried down there. He will have a sister next to him and a couple of brothers.

“Our spirits are happy about it.”

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner

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