Remains of U.P. Pearl Harbor casualty coming home

GLADSTONE — A Gladstone resident who for years helped identify sailors killed in Pearl Harbor in 1941 so their families could come to closure on their deaths was recently notified his brother’s remains will be coming home from the same battle.

“The tears started to roll. I think I said, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,'” explained Bob Valley, 84, regarding the telephone call he received on Jan. 19 informing him his brother Lowell’s remains had been identified.

Bob said he was watching television when his telephone rang that day. His TV screen caller ID displayed the caller was from Millington, Tenn. From his years of helping to connect families with lost loved ones who died aboard the same ship his brother died on — the U.S.S. Oklahoma — Bob knew the Navy Casualty Office was located in Millington.

“That was a complete surprise. I figured maybe this is it,” he recalled, as he sat at his dining table alongside a hutch that displayed Lowell’s military photograph, Purple Heart, and a black and white snapshot of the two brothers both dressed in sailor uniforms. Bob was eight years old and his brother was 18.

The call had confirmed what Bob had been waiting to hear for 76 years — Lowell’s remains would finally be coming home to be buried. He immediately telephoned his children about the news.

“I thought there was a chance this could happen, but I didn’t think it was going to happen in my lifetime,” he explained, adding, “It’s closure all right.”

Lowell received his basic training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago. The U.S.S. Oklahoma was his first and last assignment.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Navy Fireman 2nd Class Lowell Earl Valley was killed on the battleship during the Japanese surprise aerial attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The event triggered America’s entry into World War II.

A couple weeks later, just before Christmas, Valley’s family was notified Lowell was missing in action. Two months later, his family received a telegram stating he had lost his life. The telegram arrived on Feb. 20, 1942, recalled Bob, never forgetting the date they found out Lowell was killed in action because it was his ninth birthday.

Bob, who celebrates his 85th birthday Tuesday, is fully aware of the anxiety and frustration of families who have waited for the same confirmation about their loved ones killed in Pearl Harbor so many years ago.

He was a member of the U.S.S. Oklahoma Family, Inc., a group made up of survivors and surviving family members of sailors killed on the U.S.S. Oklahoma, which capsized after being hit by torpedoes while docked at Ford Island during the Japanese air strike.

A total of 2,403 Americans were killed during the attack, including 2,335 military personnel and 68 civilians. The U.S.S Arizona was completely destroyed and suffered 1,177 deaths. The U.S.S. Oklahoma capsized and suffered 429 deaths.

“Thirty-five bodies (from the Oklahoma) were recovered, identified and returned to their families for burial stateside or remained in Hawaii cemeteries,” he explained. The remaining 394 names of the crew were listed as missing in action.

When the battleship was raised in 1943, the remains of her crew were buried as “unknowns” at two Naval cemeteries at Halawa and Nu’uana. Of the 394 missing from the U.S.S. Oklahoma, 381 of the unknown remains were buried in 45 mass graves sites while 13 sailors were unaccounted for, noted Bob.

In 1949, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as the Punchbowl, was created in Honolulu.

“The graves of the unknown crew members in Halawa and Nu’uana were disinterred and their remains were transferred to the Punchbowl,” said Bob, noting dental records later designated 27 of these unknowns as known crewmen from the U.S.S. Oklahoma.

Because the anthropologist refused to sign individual certificates of identification for the 27 crew members solely based on dental records, the 27 men remained as unknown and they were buried in four grave sites at the Punchbowl.

“The families were never notified of the recommendations or identifications,” stated Bob.

In February 2008, Bob was approached by Ray Emory, a Pearl Harbor survivor attached to the cruiser U.S.S. Honolulu. Emory, of Honolulu, was also the historian for the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association and had been researching to match known names of deceased military to unknown remains in mass graves.

While looking for a lost sailor who was not on any casualty list, Emory came across the list of the 27 unknowns from the U.S.S. Oklahoma whose remains were linked to dental records but their identities were never certified. After trying five years to get these remains identified, Emory asked for Bob’s assistance in contacting relatives of the 27 men.

“Emory said he started this whole thing because he wanted these men to be honored for what they did,” said Bob, reflecting on why he agreed to help.

“The relatives of the 27 families had no closure. I just felt an obligation that the Navy right something that was wrong,” he said.

Despite most of the men’s relatives had died during the past 67 years, family members of all 27 men were found and encouraged to contact their congressmen and provide DNA samples to test for matches to the remains. From 2008 to 2010, five of the 27 Oklahoma crewmen were identified.

Allegations of mismanagement and other issues in the three governmental agencies responsible for identifying unknown remains resulted in the consolidation of all activities related to accounting missing personnel into one new agency — the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).

The process to identify remains was stepped up in April 2015 when the Pentagon announced it would exhume the unknown remains of all the crewmen from the U.S.S. Oklahoma at the Punchbowl Cemetery.

In November 2015, a total of 61 caskets in 41 gravesites were exhumed to begin the process of identifying the commingled remains, explained Bob, never dreaming his brother would be among those to be identified to date.

In addition, the remaining 22 of the 27 “known” unknowns Bob had worked so many years to convince the government to identify were finally removed from their four graves and sent to their final resting places with their names on their headstones.

Bob helped organize the funerals of a couple of these men, as well as participated in fundraisers to send survivors to Honolulu to attend anniversary ceremonies at Pearl Harbor. Bob has visited Honolulu six times, including the groundbreaking and dedication ceremonies of the U.S.S. Oklahoma Memorial at Fort Island where 429 stone columns represent the 429 lives lost on the ship.

He is a member of the Gwinn VFW Men’s Auxiliary and continues to keep informed on the DPAA’s ongoing efforts to account for missing military personnel.

Though Bob would have liked to have joined the military when he was old enough, he could not because he was the last surviving son of Joseph and MaryAnnie “Polly” Valley.

He does take pride in being a longtime “World War II buff.” His collection of books, photographs, maps, and other keepsakes are testaments to his passion. In addition to photographs of his brother, Bob has several war-related memorabilia framed throughout his home.

Within the next few weeks, personnel from the Navy Casualty Office will visit Bob with details of the identification process and arrangements to bring Lowell’s remains home to Ontonagon where he will finally be laid to rest this summer after 76 years.

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Jenny Lancour, (906) 786-2021, ext. 143, jlancour@dailypress.net