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Remains of N.J. sailor who died saving others in Pearl Harbor attack identified decades later

A color guard from the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (Old Guard) helps conduct military funeral honors with funeral escort for U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Chaturbhuj Gidwani in Section 71 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, Oct. 23, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser / Arlington National Cemetery / released)

A New Jersey sailor hailed for his actions saving others during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor will finally get a proper military burial nearly 80 years after his ship was bombed after his remains were recently identified through DNA testing.

Chief Petty Officer Francis D. Day, of Millburn, was one of the thousands lost on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese fighter planes attacked the U.S. Naval Base in Hawaii, sinking or destroying 21 vessels.

Day was in his 16th year of service when he died on the USS Oklahoma — the ship on which he’d spent the majority of his career. He was 37 years old.

Day’s family has spent the years since wondering what happened to the man of whom they’d only heard stories.

That all changed recently when Defense of POW/MIA Accounting Agency officials told Lynne Werner, Day’s niece, that his remains were identified out of the hundreds of unknown sailors buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, also known as “the Punchbowl.”

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Both Lynne Werner and her son, James Werner, didn’t know Day, but grew up hearing tales of how he spent the last moments of his life heroically saving 15 sailors trapped on the Oklahoma, the family told NJ Advance Media.

Day hoisted the men out of the ship through a small porthole, knowing his large frame would keep him from following.

“It always brought back feelings of pride for the heritage we carry on, and pride for our country,” James Werner said of the stories told of his great uncle. “It made us very grateful to be where we are today.”

Day’s presence has been felt by the family over the last 78 years. In 1943, his sister christened the USS Day, named in Day’s honor, James Werner said.

Day was the fourth of six children, Lynne Werner said. She believes her mother, Day’s sister, would feel relieved to know her brother had finally been found.

The family said Day has been described as very friendly, funny and well-respected amongst his fellow service members.

Day enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1925 as a seaman apprentice, according to military records. From 1929 onward, Day moved through the ranks of water tending, a position which oversaw the water coming in and out of ships. Day was appointed chief water tender in 1938 — the title he held when his life was cut short.

He was awarded numerous awards for his service, including the Purple Heart, records show.

James Werner said finding closure has been a longtime goal for the family, particularly his mother and sister, who each provided DNA samples to the POW/MIA agency in hopes of finding their uncle’s long-lost remains.

The Werners were hopeful, but optimism dimmed when years went by without a result. But the call finally came about a month ago.

“We were really hopeful for it because we’d been part of the process,” James Werner said. “We were like, ‘you’re kidding, this incredible.’”

The Navy completed a full disinterment of the unknown USS Oklahoma sailors in 2015. More than 400 sailors died on the ship, and 152 still need identification, officials said.

Several of Day’s family members plan on flying to Hawaii for his burial at the Punchbowl, James Werner said. Services have not yet been scheduled.

“He was a hero, there’s no other way to describe him,” he said. “Finally someone who deserved so much more than a mass grave [is] going to get the recognition and respect that he deserved.”

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© 2019 NJ Advance Media Group