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Killed in Pearl Harbor attack nearly 78 years ago, Kansas sailor’s remains return home

The remains of Seaman 2nd Class Wilbur Clayton Barrett, a Sailor killed in the attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 aboard the USS Oklahoma, were returned to Wichita, near his hometown of El Dorado, Kansas, during a repatriation ceremony at Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport. In 2015, the Navy exhumed the unidentified remains of 380 Sailors and Marines lost aboard the Oklahoma, to identify them using DNA analysis so they could be returned to their families. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin R. Pacheco)

Nearly 78 years after he died in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Navy Seaman 2nd Class Wilbur Clayton Barrett is finally home.

Early Thursday afternoon, decades after the battleship he was stationed on sank in World War II, Barrett’s remains were flown into Wichita’s Eisenhower National Airport in preparation for his burial in El Dorado this weekend.

His remains arrived on a commercial flight from St. Louis, Missouri, shortly after noon.

Rain fell as sailors generations younger than Barrett stood at attention while his flag-draped casket was lowered from the cargo hold of a Southwest Airlines jet. Six Navy members marched in step as they carried the casket to a white hearse and slid it inside.

Dozens of curious travelers — some on the same flight, some waiting in the terminal for their own departures — looked on until the hearse drove away.

For Ryan King, Command Master Chief of the USS Wichita, who has performed several plane-side services for fallen service members, the ceremony was emotional.

“Seaman Barrett, albeit a young individual who just joined the Navy and left Kansas for the first time and came to Pearl Harbor. He just came there to do a good job as a sailor. … And he fought, and he fought hard,” King said after the plane’s arrival. “Today we came to honor his sacrifice just like we do all of our service members that made the ultimate sacrifice like he did.”

For years, Barrett’s remains lay commingled in mass graves in Hawaii with hundreds of his fellow USS Oklahoma crew members after military efforts to identify the dead in the 1940s were unsuccessful. He was positively identified last June thanks to advances in DNA technology and a renewed effort by the military to return the unidentified dead to their families.

“It’s very important, not only for the families, but for the future generations today and the younger generations to understand what it was that those sailors and other service members gave to their country — the ultimate sacrifice that they made,” Navy Lt. John Stevens said.

“Having them come back home and being able to repatriate them … is so meaningful for all of us as Americans.”

Barrett will be buried with full military honors Saturday at Sunset Lawns Cemetery, 2100 Sunset Road in El Dorado. A graveside service starts at 10 a.m.

Barrett’s great nephew, 72-year-old Joe Binter, said he and at least two other distant relatives of his great uncle’s are planning to attend.

“It just makes me feel happy to lay him to rest near his family,” said Binter, who lives in Denver.

He said he was aware that Barrett had died in the Pearl Harbor attack. But he didn’t know much else until the Navy contacted him last fall after his great-uncle’s remains had been identified. His family photo albums and letters contained little information.

“I know his family would be happy for him to be buried near them,” Binter said.

Barrett was born in El Dorado on April 9, 1915, to Maynard and Nora Barrett. He was the youngest of three. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in May 1940 at age 25, saying he wanted to learn a trade.

“That’s what so many sailors do today, they want to learn how to do something,” Stevens said.

He traveled to the Pacific, hoping for adventure, King said.

But he was dead within a year and a half.

Barrett was aboard the USS Oklahoma when Japanese airplanes carried out a surprise attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. The ship sat in berth F-5 of Battleship Row when the strike started shortly before 8 a.m.

Within minutes, it took three torpedo hits. Six more struck the ship before it sank.

The ship capsized, trapping many of the crewmen, in less than 12 minutes. A total of 2,402 Americans died in the Pearl Harbor attack; 429 were crew members of the USS Oklahoma.

Barrett, then 26, went to the bottom of the harbor floor with the ship.

“He was going about his normal morning routine and then all of a sudden, like life and 380 sailors on USS Oklahoma and really everyone’s lives in America changed in just a few short minutes,” Stevens said.

“Seaman Barrett went to work just like any other day, not expecting what tragedy was going to come before him, just like Sept. 11,” King said.

Like so many of his fellow crewmen, Barrett’s body couldn’t be immediately identified following military efforts to right the ship and recover remains from December 1941 to June 1944. The dead were buried as unknown in Halawa and Nu’uanu Cemeteries in Hawaii. Efforts in 1947 to disinter and return the remains of the USS Oklahoma’s crew members to their families yielded only positive identities of 32 sailors and three Marines.

Three years later, in 1950, after officials determined there was no way to identify any more victims, the military reburied the rest of the remains in mass graves in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific — commonly called the Punchbowl — in Hawaii.

Advances in DNA technology in recent years have enabled authorities to identify unknown remains. Since the 1990s, the Department of Defense DNA Registry has cataloged the DNA of men and women who are or have served in the military

In the case of long-dead veterans authorities use DNA samples from family members as well as medical and dental records to find matches.

The Navy used DNA from one of Binter’s aunts to identify Barrett, Binter said.

“It’s amazing that we have the technology now to pick out these individual sailors, identify them and that means we can give the families closure. We can give the country some closure from these folks that went thousands of miles away to serve their countries and then ultimately gave their lives,” Stevens said.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency undertook the daunting task of exhuming and working to identify the unknown remains of the USS Oklahoma’s crew in 2015. It took five months to disinter 61 caskets in 45 graves that held the dead.

So far, more than half of the 388 crew members’ commingled remains have been identified. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced the 200th identification in March. As the project got underway, the agency thought it could identify 80% of the bones within five years.

Barrett’s remains were accounted for more than a year ago — on June 20, 2018.

“The thing that moves me the most is the Navy’s dedication to identifying those remains that are more than 70 years old and bringing them back to the families,” Binter said.

Barrett’s name is recorded on the Courts of the Missing at the Punchbowl with others who were killed in World War II. A rosette now sits next to his name, an indication he’s been identified, according to information from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

At the El Dorado cemetery, Barrett will be buried next to family members. At the time of his death, his mother, father, an older sister named Agnes Marie Hurlburt and an older brother named Frank C. Barrett survived him.

They are also buried at Sunset Lawns Cemetery, Binter said.

“We’re just so blessed that we’ve been able to identify him and … to bring him back home where he belongs,” Stevens said.


© 2019 The Wichita Eagle