Three-quarters of a century after he was killed during the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the remains of a young Navy sailor finally are heading home to Kansas.
Lewis Lowell Wagoner was a 20-year-old Navy seaman second class when he perished and was declared missing after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack that propelled the United States into World War II. Wagoner was aboard the USS Oklahoma when that battleship, along with other U.S. warships, was doomed by torpedoes while helplessly moored in Pearl Harbor.
Wagoner’s body, unidentified at the time, eventually was recovered, along with several hundred fellow shipmates. All of them were buried as “unknowns” in a Hawaii cemetery. But last year, the U.S. military dug up the mass graves and began a painstaking push by special military laboratories to put names to the remains, using pre-war dental records and modern advances in DNA testing.
Wagoner’s remains will be flown to Wichita on Friday, Oct. 7. A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 8, at Smith Mortuary in Haysville, with interment scheduled later that day in Whitewater.
Family ties nearly gone
Lewis Wagoner was the oldest of eight boys. His picture was always on display at his parents’ house and, later, at his youngest brother’s house.
A lone surviving brother, Carl Wagoner, 87, lives in Syracuse, Utah.
While saying “it’s a joy that we’re finally able to bring Uncle Lewis home,” 70-year-old Wichita niece Linda Guinn called it bittersweet in that only one sibling is able to see it happen.
“When his brothers all were younger, they were always talking about Lewis and wondering if he could ever be brought home,” said Doris Wagoner, Lewis Wagoner’s sister-in-law. Her husband – Merle Wagoner, a Navy veteran of the Korean War – died three years ago at the age of 79.
Three months after Merle Wagoner died in 2013, Doris Wagoner said, she received a phone call saying there was a possibility the remains might be identified. Her husband, she said, was only 7 when the Pearl Harbor attack occurred on Dec. 7, 1941, and he did not have any significant memories of his oldest brother.
Day that lives in infamy
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 took nine torpedo blows.
In less than 12 minutes, the ship rolled over, trapping many of the sailors. Thirty-two men were rescued via holes cut through the hull, but 415 sailors and 14 Marines didn’t make it.
All told, more than 2,400 sailors, Marines and soldiers died in the Pearl Harbor attack that sank or damaged 21 U.S. vessels. The Oklahoma’s casualties were second only to the USS Arizona, which lost 1,177 men.
The Pentagon has offered no public account about how Wagoner died, though Guinn said a shipmate friend of Wagoner’s has said the two men dived off the torpedo-ravaged ship into the water ablaze with leaking oil and fuel. The friend survived and since has died; Wagoner was “not a good swimmer” and was never seen alive again, Guinn said.
On Sept. 30, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced that scientists identified Wagoner’s remains through dental comparisons and DNA that matched two brothers, who relatives said supplied genetic samples to the military about a decade ago.
The same day, the agency also announced it had identified the remains of Navy Lt. j.g. Aloysius Schmitt of St. Lucas, Iowa, who was also aboard the Oklahoma. A visitation was held for the chaplain Wednesday in his hometown and a burial will be held in Dubuque, Iowa, on Saturday, The Telegraph Herald newspaper reported.
Schmitt was among a group of sailors who discovered a small porthole as the ship was filling with water. He had the chance to escape but refused and hoisted others through the porthole and out to safety, according to the newspaper.
Identifying the remains
The Navy spent more than two years recovering remains from the Oklahoma, eventually laying them to rest in mass graves in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in an extinct volcanic crater known as Punchbowl. But last year, the Pentagon’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency began unearthing the remains from 45 gravesites, disinterring 61 caskets, many containing comingled remains of multiple people.
“When we get through a conflict or war and we clean up the battlefields, we need to do everything within our power for the fullest possible accounting of our missing in action and those held as prisoners of war,” said Jim Denison, a district POW/MIA chairman in the Wichita area. “When I am gone, I want this to carry on. This issue is not over.”
“I’ve practically lost all my Pearl Harbor survivors,” said Denison, an honorary member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, whose 75th anniversary is this year. “So I have families. We still have close to 1,800 people still missing from Pearl Harbor.”
Since the early 1990s, the Department of Defense DNA Registry has conducted a massive program to catalog the DNA of current and past members of the armed forces.
The remains of 35 crew members were positively identified in the years immediately following the attack. But 429 sailors and Marines were listed as killed or missing. In 1949, a military board classified their remains as nonrecoverable.
But in May, Navy Seaman 2nd Class Dale Pearce, who was serving on board the USS Oklahoma when the attack occurred, had his remains identified and returned home to Dennis, Kansas. There may be more remains to come, Denison said.
Wagoner family members say Lewis Wagoner will receive full military honors. A bronze grave marker – noting the Missouri-born serviceman’s status as a Purple Heart recipient – already awaits him in a row of final resting places for three of his seven brothers.
“It was a hardworking family. I think it is great he is finally coming home,” said nephew Ron Wagoner.