Nieces of Marine Jack Cremean held each other and cried as a plane containing the remains of their uncle approached Wednesday at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, 77 years after he was killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
They thought of their mothers and grandparents who have died and had wanted to be there for that moment. After years of waiting, Cremean’s remains were finally identified in August using DNA that a sister submitted to the military 17 years ago.
“I’m just so glad he’s back, glad he’s home,” said niece Esther Spradlin after Cremean’s flag-draped casket was loaded into a hearse by a Marine honor guard.
There will be a public funeral Friday, on the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing, in Madera’s Arbor Vitae Cemetery. Cremean’s casket – containing some bones, old photos, Marine uniform, and a poem from his mother’s scrapbook – will be buried beside his parents.
Niece Donna Moren held a red, white and blue “Welcome Home!” balloon as the plane bearing his casket touched down in Fresno.
Cremean’s three nieces said they grew up feeling like they knew their uncle, although they were born after he died.
“There probably hasn’t been a day when I haven’t cried,” Moren said. The tears, she said, are for “family and the loss they felt and not having any closure.”
Cremean’s death wasn’t the first profound loss for his family. One of his three younger sisters died of polio as a child before he was killed in Oahu at age 21.
The grief the family experienced lingered and was passed on. The pain endures nearly eight decades later, but has been eased significantly with the identification of Cremean’s remains.
“It’s just an amazing thing that has happened, to be lost and found, and now everyone will have closure,” niece Elaine Holiday said. “I think my mother always wondered, ‘Did he survive and was injured and didn’t remember who he was?’ You know there’s always that doubt in your mind that maybe he didn’t go down in the ship.”
That sister also clung to something Cremean once told her – that if he was ever seriously injured in combat, he wouldn’t return home.
“That was kind of always in the back of my mother’s mind that he might be alive,” Spradlin said. “That little hope.”
Correspondence from the military after Pearl Harbor left the family in limbo for months. Cremean’s parents first received a telegram 17 days after the attack, on Christmas Eve, reporting Cremean missing, before receiving another six days later incorrectly listing him as a survivor. It was not until the end of February, nearly three months after the bombing, that his parents were told by the Marine Corps that their only son had been killed.
Among the agony: The family received Christmas presents from Cremean in the mail after he was killed, including a grass hula skirt, handkerchiefs and a sailor doll.
Family described him as playful, happy, “kind of a character,” and a young leader in his community. He grew up in Colorado, but will be laid to rest in Madera, where his parents moved after World War II, because that’s where they are buried.
Cremean was one of 14 Marines killed while working security on the USS Oklahoma, and among 429 casualties on that ship, said Hattie Johnson, head of the POW/MIA section of the Marine Corps’ casualties office.
Only three Marines on that ship were identified immediately after the attack, Johnson said. The rest were interred in two cemeteries on Hawaii with as many as 400 other “unknowns” from the USS Oklahoma until 1947, when the remains were exhumed and 35 more men were identified, Johnson said. The rest were interred a second time at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific on Oahu, known by many as “the punchbowl.”
It wasn’t until 2003 that one casket, thought to contain the remains of five men, was disinterred. It ended up containing partial remains of nearly 100 people, Johnson said. That discovery delayed plans and put the military in negotiations about what to do next. The military focused on that one casket until clearance was given in 2015 to exhume the remaining 62 caskets. So far, four of the 11 unknown Marines have been identified, and more than 100 from the Navy, Johnson said.
Cremean’s family provided DNA in 2001, before the first casket was removed. Johnson said a DNA match was first made for Cremean in 2015, but the military didn’t contact the family until August, after all his remains had been identified, and additional research was done to assure his identify, such as referencing historical military and dental records.
Johnson visited Cremean’s family in Madera in October to present the findings of that analysis. Seeing photos of his bones and teeth, indicating he was injured by a torpedo blast, gave Spradlin some peace that her uncle didn’t suffer long.
“There were men on the Oklahoma that were alive, and people could hear them banging on the bottom of the ship for several days (trapped in the vessel),” Spradlin said. “It always bothered me that it could have been Uncle Jack, but that wasn’t him.”
It means a lot to his three nieces, three nephews, and one surviving brother-in-law to now have a headstone for Cremean that they can visit in Madera to pay their respects.
“This gives us real closure,” Holiday said. “We know exactly where he is, and we’re so happy he’ll be by his parents.”
Graveside funeral for Alva Jackson “Jack” Cremean
2 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7 at Arbor Vitae Cemetery, 1301 Roberts Ave., Madera
Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day ceremonies
On the 77th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, public ceremonies are planned in the central San Joaquin Valley at 9:55 a.m. (when the attacks ended in 1941) including:
Fresno VA hospital
Rep. Jim Costa, Lorenzo Rios of the Clovis Veterans Memorial District and others scheduled to speak; wreath laying and light refreshments. The VA hospital is at 2615 E. Clinton Ave. (at Fresno Street)
Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1981 Honor Guard rifle salute and speakers including Madera County District Attorney-elect Sally Orme Moreno at the Tesoro Viejo Town Center, 4150 Town Center Blvd. in the new Madera County community east of Highway 41