KANSAS CITY, Mo. — 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.
There to greet him will be the only one of his seven brothers who is still living, an 87-year-old Utah man, and generations of family he never got a chance to know.
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, was eventually 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 were to be flown Friday to Wichita, Kansas, a day before a memorial service and interment with military honors at a family plot in Harvey County's Whitewater Cemetery. 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.
"All the brothers looked forward, hoping that someday his remains might be returned to Kansas where they were all from," said Lee Longaker, a niece.
His surviving sibling, Carl Wagoner, spent the day Thursday traveling from his home in Syracuse to the Kansas town where he and his brothers spent their days making mischief, skipping school to sneak off to the swimming hole and tipping over outhouses.
"He would talk about them growing up in Kansas and the little pranks they would pull," Longaker, Carl Wagoner's daughter, said with a laugh. "He just has those boyhood memories."
Carl Wagoner was only 12 when his eldest brother died at Pearl Harbor. He remembers the family receiving a telegram with the news.
"My mother cried," Wagoner recalled in 2011. "My parents were quiet and old Missourians who didn't have any education, and they worked all their lives."
Like many of his brothers, Carl Wagoner followed in Lewis' footsteps and went on to join the Navy. He was stationed in San Diego when he met and married his late wife, Marian, and had five children. The family moved to Utah in 1980, where Carl Wagoner still lives with Longaker.
Decades later, his health is waning and the trip is taxing, but "he wouldn't miss it for the world," his daughter said.
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.
Longaker recalled the excitement shared by her father and Merle Wagoner when they provided DNA samples to help identify their brother. Though Merle Wagoner didn't live to learn the results of the test, both believed their brother had been found, she said.
On her way to Whitewater Thursday, Longaker marvelled at the reception awaiting Lewis Wagoner's remains, including a motorcycle escort from the airport and a memorial service. The remains have been accompanied from Hawaii by the husband of one of Carl Wagoner's granddaughters, also a service member.
"We're all elated," Longaker said. "Having that closure for (Carl Wagoner) means a lot to him. He has mentioned before he is sad some of his other brothers aren't here to experience this, but he is honored and privileged to be able to do this."
Japanese planes hit the Oklahoma with a blitz of torpedoes, quickly capsizing the battleship. 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 dove 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.
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.
Lorna Davis, another of Carl Wagoner's daughters accompanying him Thursday, recalled taking her father and mother to Hawaii five years ago to see Pearl Harbor and the Punchbowl memorial. Her father laid a flower lei on one of the markers they believed was a likely resting place for Lewis Wagoner, she said, and quietly sat down beside it.
"It was pretty emotional," said Davis, of Riverside, California. "That was a great experience, and now to have this it's really amazing."
With family members on their way from Utah, California, Oregon, Alabama and Nebraska, the memorial will serve as a joyful day for many people, Davis said.
"It's just a big reunion of all of our family, and I know we will feel the presence of our loved ones who have passed on," she said.
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. The agency said it expects to identify 80 percent of the Oklahoma's unknown by 2020.
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