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Sailor lost at Pearl Harbor gets a hero’s welcome 78 years later

Delta Honor Guard (New York National Guard/Flickr)

The passengers aboard Delta Air Lines Flight 1193 on Thursday heard an unusual announcement in the cabin shortly before their descent into Atlanta.

In the belly of the plane was a casket with the remains of a U.S. Navy first class petty officer killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor 78 years ago, they learned. His remains were identified just the two years ago with the help of DNA.

In the airplane cabin sitting among the passengers was Navy master-at-arms Sarah Sandoz, whose duty was to escort the remains of 26-year-old sailor John William Craig from the mortuary in Omaha, Neb. to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and then onto Little Rock, Ark. That’s where Craig will be buried Friday — one day before the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Pulling into the gate, passengers aboard the plane could see the Delta Honor Guard bearing flags for each branch of service and the American flag, preparing for the arrival.

The homecoming comes decades after the remains of those killed at Pearl Harbor who could not be individually identified were interred as unknowns at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, a military burial site in Honolulu known as Punchbowl. Craig was memorialized there on the Courts of the Missing.

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As an escort for the repatriation of Craig’s remains, Sandoz’s responsibilities included ensuring the remains were properly wrapped in wool, providing a uniform for the sailor and making sure the square knot is tied correctly, and seeing that the casket is properly handled and safely transported. In Little Rock, she would follow the hearse to the mortuary.

It was Sandoz’ first time serving as an escort for remains of the fallen. She volunteered for the duty.

“Not a lot of people want to do it because it’s very emotional,” she said. “The people I work with said, ‘You know what, you might be a person who can handle it.’”

She said when she saw the casket, “my prayer really was for the family,” Sandoz said. “They’ve been in mourning all this time. I hope, I pray it brings a lot of healing to the family.”

As the plane landed, the volunteer Delta Honor Guard began assembling to pay tribute to the fallen. Among them were employees of Delta Air Lines and the Transportation Security Administration. They gathered for a brief ceremony as the casket descended from the cargo hold and was loaded onto a specially designed cart.

“It’s an honor getting these guys back home, back home to their families,” said Delta Honor Guard coordinator Brian McConnell. Hundreds of repatriations have come through Atlanta over the years, he said.

Craig, from Monroe, Ark., was assigned to battleship USS Oklahoma, moored at Ford Island, Pearl Harbor when Japanese military aircraft attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. The torpedoed ship quickly capsized, and 429 died.

In 2015, advances in forensic techniques with DNA prompted the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) to begin exhuming remains of Pearl Harbor sailors and Marines from Punchbowl.

In late 2017, through mitochondrial DNA, dental and anthropological analysis and other evidence, Craig’s remains were finally identified. A rosette added to his name the memorial at Punchbowl denoting that he is no longer missing. More than 72,000 service members killed during World War II remain unaccounted for.

Atlanta airport chaplain Donna Mote, who met Sandoz upon her arrival, regularly greets and assists those traveling with the remains of fallen military. She finds it profoundly moving.

“These are young people who were young when my dad was young,” Mote said. “It’s poignant.”

Patriot Guard Riders organized an honor mission fto greet Craig’s remains at Little Rock National Airport and at the funeral home and veterans cemetery. He will be buried with military honors.

In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a proclamation designating Friday as John W. Craig Memorial Day in that state. The state flag will fly at half-staff from sunrise Thursday until sunset Friday in Craig’s honor.

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© 2019 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution