They were boys when they joined the Navy, 17-year-old twins of German-Russian immigrants raising a big family in a small house on A Street.
Rudolph and Leo Blitz would forever remain boys, their futures stolen when the USS Oklahoma was torpedoed at Pearl Harbor.
“It’s really hard to use the term uncles, because they were always the boys,” said Sandy Cox, a niece born five years later. “The boys or the twins, that’s how they were referred to in the stories we were told.”
The boys still have a big family. And when the two finally return to Lincoln this weekend — more than eight decades after they enlisted, months after their remains were finally identified — they’ll be welcomed by up to 80 relatives.
Nieces and nephews from Nebraska and New Jersey and New Mexico and beyond. Their only surviving sibling out of 13 brothers and sisters — 93-year-old Betty Pitsch of Lincoln, whose DNA contribution helped bring her older brothers home.
The two will be buried Saturday at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery with full military honors in a bittersweet homecoming.
“I think it’s going to be emotional, but I don’t know if sad is really the word for it,” Cox said. “We know it’s something our parents would have wanted, our grandparents would have wanted.”
Marie and Henry Blitz married in 1913, a widow and widower with six children between them already. They raised nine more of their own in the tight-knit South Bottoms, where the homes Henry Blitz built a century ago still stand.
The twins left Lincoln High to join the Navy in 1938, and had been stationed at Pearl Harbor for a year and a day before their ship went down.
They were eventually buried at the Punchbowl, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, their remains mixed with those of nearly 430 other sailors and Marines in 62 caskets.
In 2015, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency unearthed the remains of the Oklahoma’s crew and shipped them to a laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base for the tedious task of identification. This spring, through DNA and dental records and anthropology, the lab was able to put names to the brothers.
And Jeff Dee could start planning another funeral. The commander of the Navy Operational Support Center Omaha, also based at Offutt, helps provides some level of military honors for any eligible sailor who requests it.
“In this case, these sailors were killed while on active duty at Pearl Harbor. They rate full military honors.”
This will be the fourth area funeral for sailors lost on the Oklahoma. Last month, one was buried in Central City. In June, Bloomfield. Last fall, Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Dee has never helped put two brothers to rest on the same day. “This is a bit unique,” he said. “We’re normally burying one sailor at a time.”
They’re planning two ceremonies, one after the other. Two flag-covered caskets. Two 21-gun salutes. Two soundings of taps. A Navy chaplain giving two invocations. An admiral presenting two flags to Pitsch, the surviving sister.
It’s always important to honor sailors who sacrificed their lives for their country, Dee said. But this case feels particularly meaningful. He’s met the family, and he’s learned the story of the twins.
Boys when they joined, boys when they died. “When they enlisted in the Navy, they didn’t know what was coming.”
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