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Killed at Pearl Harbor, Navy sailor’s remains identified decades later

An aerial view of salvage operations on the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor. (U.S. Navy/Released)

More than 76 years after he died on the USS Oklahoma, Navy Fireman 1st Class Frank E. Nicoles of Eau Claire was accounted for.

But none of his siblings who also served in World War II — brothers John and William and sister Jean — were still alive to see Eau Claire’s first casualty of the war identified.

“It’s been a long time,” said Brad Venaas, adjutant of American Legion Post 53, also known as the Johnson-Nicoles-Kuhlman-Olson Post 53 in recognition of Eau Claire war casualties William C. Johnson, killed in World War I; Nicoles; Roger R. Kuhlman, killed in the Korean War; and Rodney J. Olson, killed in the Vietnam War.

The post recognized its four namesakes Saturday with ceremonies at Johnson’s, Kuhlman’s and Olson’s graves. (Johnson and Kuhlman are buried in Eau Claire, and Olson’s final resting place is in Rest Haven Cemetery in the town of Washington.)

Not wanting to leave Nicoles out, the post ordered a wreath and requested the National Park Service lay it last week in Hawaii.

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“If we were going to do three, we decided we were going to do all four,” said Venaas, whose late father, Burton, served during World War II.

Until May 5, 2018, Nicoles was unaccounted for. But even after his remains were identified, Venaas didn’t know about it until he began researching the late sailor.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the day that will forever live in infamy, Nicoles was assigned to the battleship USS Oklahoma, which was moored at Ford Island at Pearl Harbor, a U.S. naval base near Honolulu.

Just before 8 a.m. that Sunday morning, Japanese planes descended in a surprise attack. The 27,500-ton USS Oklahoma, commissioned in 1916, sustained multiple torpedo hits, which caused it to capsize quickly, trapping hundreds of men below the battleship’s decks.

However, more than 2,400 people, including U.S. servicemembers and civilians, died that day. Of those, 1,177 were from the USS Arizona, and 429, including Nicoles, were from the USS Oklahoma.

Nicoles’ brother John, also serving on the USS Oklahoma, survived.

According to information released by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency:

From December 1941 to June 1944, Navy personnel recovered the remains of the USS Oklahoma’s deceased crew, which were subsequently interred in the Halawa and Nu’uana cemeteries.

Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, more than 400,000 died during the war. At its end, approximately 79,000 were unaccounted for. (Currently, there are more than 72,000 still unaccounted for, and approximately 26,000 of those have been assessed as possibly-recoverable.)

In September 1947, tasked with recovering and identifying fallen U.S. personnel in the Pacific Theater, members of the American Graves Registration Service disinterred the remains of U.S. casualties from the two cemeteries and transferred them to the Central Identification Laboratory at Schofield Barracks.

Lab staff were only able to confirm the identities of 35 men from the Oklahoma at that time. The AGRS subsequently buried the unidentified remains in 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl.

In October 1949, a military board classified those who could not be identified, including Nicoles, as non-recoverable.

More than six decades later, the deputy secretary of the defense issued a policy memorandum in April 2015 directing the disinterment of unknowns associated with the USS Oklahoma. On June 15 of that year, DPPA personnel began exhuming the remains for analysis.

To identify Nicoles’ remains, scientists from DPPA and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA and dental analysis, as well as circumstantial and material evidence.

He is one of the more than 200 dead from the USS Oklahoma who have been identified so far, according to Gene Hughes, a public affairs specialist with Navy Personnel Command Public Affairs. His surviving family members didn’t want to talk to the media.

Nicoles’ name is recorded on the Walls of the Missing at the Punchbowl, along with the others who are missing from WW II. A rosette has been placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.

Having spent 28 years working for the Eau Claire Police Department, Venaas isn’t surprised Nicoles’ remains have finally been identified in part because of DNA.

“I think a lot of (identifying the unaccounted for) depends on if their families were willing to give samples,” he said.

Nicoles enlisted on Jan. 24, 1940, according to information shared by Hughes. From there, he went to the Naval Training Station Great Lakes in Illinois, and he reported to the USS Oklahoma on March 23, 1940.

He was awarded the Purple Heart, World War II Victory Medal and American Defense Service Medal.

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© 2019 the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.