The wind gusted sideways and rain lashed down as the Delta passenger jet carrying Seaman 1st Class Herbert Joseph Poindexter Jr. drew close to his hometown of Jacksonville, from which the sailor had left in 1936, looking for new opportunities and new horizons in a world wracked by the Great Depression.
The storm then paused, though black clouds lowered and loomed just to the west of Jacksonville International Airport. The wind dropped.
Some sun came out, just as Poindexter’s plane landed and crept toward the terminal, pausing some yards shy as a Jacksonville firetruck, in salute, sprayed a beautiful arch of water over the plane. Passengers on the flight had each been given a paper telling them something of Poindexter’s short life.
After the jet pulled up to the gate, a cargo ramp emerged from its starboard side. The first thing down the ramp, the only thing down the ramp, was Poindexter’s wooden coffin, draped in an American flag. A Navy honor guard, in whites, carried it to a hearse waiting on the tarmac and slowly slid it inside.
Seventy-seven years, six months and 13 days after he died on a Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Herbert Joseph Poindexter Jr. — known to most as H.J. — was home.
He had been missing since the Japanese attack on his ship, but his country kept looking for him: After the remains of many of Pearl Harbor’s dead were exhumed from a cemetery in Hawaii, the military got a DNA match in September from his nephew.
H.J. had been found.
His family was waiting Thursday for him at the airport tarmac, family he didn’t live to meet.
His little sister Lilyan’s son, Joe Allen, 76, who was born when the pain of H.J.’s death was still new, still fresh, and who was given H.J.’s middle name to be his.
His little sister Helen’s daughter, Lisa Williams, 56, and her son, Matthew, 32.
Both of H.J.’s sisters have passed away, and his mother, Bessie Meyer, too.
“I’m very grateful and happy,” Lisa Wiliams said, as she drove her car toward the airport tarmac. “I wish my mom … “
She couldn’t talk for a while after that.
H.J. grew up in Jacksonville without a lot of money and went to Andrew Jackson High School. He joined the Navy in 1936: times were tough for most, and in the Navy he could make some real money, even enough to send some home to his family.
The Navy then sent him to the Pacific, something a poor kid from Jacksonville didn’t otherwise have much chance of seeing in those days.
By 1941, he was 24, a barber on the battleship USS Oklahoma. He had plans for after the Navy: Moving to Arizona, where he had a fiancee waiting and a ranch he was buying with payments.
Then came Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The Oklahoma was docked at Ford Island, and quickly capsized in flames after being torpedoed by Japanese planes. More than 2,400 Americans died in the attack on Hawaii, including 429 men on Poindexter’s ship.
Two weeks later, back in Jacksonville, his mother received a telegram from the Navy confirming that he was missing in action. In February, another telegram said it had been “impossible” to locate her son, so he was being officially declared dead.
In his hometown, there was a big memorial service for him at Central Christian Church. Mayor John T. Alsop was among those who paid him tribute.
But H.J.’s body wasn’t there — it could not be identified among the hundreds recovered from the wreck, most of which were buried in the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
H.J. was just gone.
The family grieved: His father was out of the picture, so H.J. had been the man around the house. With him now gone too, his sister Helen enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps in 1942, where she learned to fly and then piloted supply planes across the U.S. during the war. Doing her part.
Beginning in 2015, the military’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency exhumed the unknown remains that had come from the ship, looking for DNA matches to identify the dead. In September 2018, scientists got a match for Herbert Joseph Poindexter Jr.
His niece and nephew say they felt as if they knew him: Williams had her mother’s collection of photos, clippings about H.J. from the newspaper and telegrams from the Navy announcing his death.
And they’d heard stories. How his family was devastated with him gone, haunted by his disappearance. About what a good person he was, about the ranch he was buying, the fiancee he loved. They heard how H.J.’s mother and sisters traveled to Arizona to meet his fiancee for the first and only time, and how they all mourned together.
Later, the young woman sent a letter: She wanted H.J.’s mother to know she’d fallen in love with another fine man and was getting married. That made H.J.’s family happy.
On Friday, the sailor will be buried at the national cemetery in his hometown.
To see his uncle come home, Allen traveled from Tucson, Ariz., with his wife Susan, and arrived at the airport with his college friend, Wendell Massey, and his wife Dorothy, who live in Jacksonville. Joe had introduced the Masseys to each other, back in 1967.
Williams made the short trip from her home in Fernandina Beach with her son, Matthew Williams, 32, who marveled at what it took to finally get his great-uncle home. “To me it was fascinating, the length of time,” he said. “But people were still committed to going through with it, letting technology catch up with them.”
Gathered there at the airport, they told some more stories.
Allen said he had a letter H.J. had written his sister from the USS Oklahoma. Small talk, really: I’m well. I hope you’re well. Give my love to everyone. It was dated Dec. 5, 1941.
How could he have grasped what would happen two days later?
Lisa Williams said she too had a letter, one her mother Helen had written to H.J., telling him that his Christmas gifts were on their way. No one knows what happened to the gifts, but the letter eventually make its way back home from Hawaii. It was marked “Undeliverable.”
© 2019 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)
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