In January, Shawnee residents the Rev. Bill Ashworth and his wife Addileen received some unexpected news, which would result in the planning of a family funeral.
Ashworth’s uncle, U.S. Navy Fireman 1st Class James Cecil Webb, served a year and a half before he lost his life for his country.
Webb’s burial, though, has been a long time coming — nearly 80 years. The 23-year-old Hobart, Oklahoma native, along with 428 sailor and marine ship mates, died at Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, when the USS Oklahoma (BB-37) was attacked a year and a day after being stationed in Hawaii. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, at okhistory.org, 2,402 U.S. Deaths resulted from that attack.
Nearly eight decades after that historic day, Webb has finally made it back to Oklahoma.
Ashworth said he was given three options where his uncle could be buried — they could send his remains to Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia; place him back (with the remains of the Unknowns) at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (NMCP) — a.k.a. the Punchbowl, in Hawaii; or bring him back to Oklahoma, near family.
He said, though Arlington would have been nice, there wasn’t much likelihood of him traveling there to visit the site.
“I decided to bring him home,” Ashworth said. “That is where all heroes belong.”
He said having his uncle back in Oklahoma will enable family to watch over the grave and visit now and then.
Addileen Ashworth said 13 of her relatives are buried at Dale Cemetery, about 11 miles west of Shawnee.
On Wednesday afternoon, a graveside memorial was held there to honor the young sailor.
“We would have already done this (memorial service) a couple months ago, except for COVID-19,” Ashworth said. “I was so scared that the uptick in COVID-19 would stop this, but thankfully it did not.”
Ashworth said the whole turn of events has been great and unbelievable — an experience of a lifetime.
“All these people that have come out and supported, and called — and everything; it’s just been remarkable.”
Locals waving American flags lined service roads and U.S. Highways 9 and 102 along the 14-mile trek between Cooper Funeral Home in Tecumseh and Dale Cemetery, west of Shawnee.
Shawnee Veterans of Foreign War (VFW) Post 1317 Commander Don Plumley said he thought the service was outstanding.
“I was impressed with the turnout,” he said.
As per full-honor military funeral tradition, there was a casket team of Navy pallbearers; three rifle volleys signifying duty, honor and country, were executed; the 24-note bugle call Taps was played; and the folding of and presentation of the American flag to the family was performed.
Webb’s oldest living relative, Ashworth is now 86, but he was a just a child when his uncle died.
He said he didn’t know many details of Webb’s life.
“There’s a lot of information on him that’s been lost, simply because it wasn’t talked about, and probably if it was, as a 7-year-old boy (I) didn’t pay much attention,” he said. “I wish I had been a better listener then.”
“When he joined the Navy, he never dreamed that (the attack) would happen,” Ashworth said. “I believe he expected a romantic life — a life of service.”
In those days, he said, men were real patriots.
“Even though I never met him, I feel like he was a real patriot,” he said.
When Ashworth first considered a ceremony, he said he figured it would just be a small family get-together; he didn’t anticipate it would become such a big event on such a grand scale.
He said at least part of that credit belongs to Cooper Funeral Home.
“(Owner) J. (Cooper) has really been fantastic,” he said.
Cooper said this is the first time the funeral home has been part of a service that involved the burial of long-missing remains.
“It’s great to get them back to the family,” he said.
Cooper said the ability to complete an inventory after remains have been separated for 80 years and then match them to a family is an incredible feat.
“We’ve done quite a few veteran funerals this year, but this one is different,” he said. “It’s a great send-off; the family is overwhelmed with all the great things people have done for them.”
Cooper said in about a week the funeral home should have a final recording of the event available online for viewing. Visit cooperfuneral.com.
Identifying Webb’s remains
From December 1941 to June 1944, Navy personnel recovered the remains of the deceased crew, which were subsequently interred in the Halawa and Nu’uanu Cemeteries.
In September 1947, tasked with recovering and identifying fallen U.S. personnel in the Pacific Theater, members of the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) disinterred the remains of U.S. casualties from the two cemeteries and transferred them to the Central Identification Laboratory at Schofield Barracks. The laboratory staff was only able to confirm the identifications of 35 men from the USS Oklahoma at that time. The AGRS subsequently buried the unidentified remains in 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (NMCP), known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu. In October 1949, a military board classified those who could not be identified as non-recoverable, including Webb.
Between June and November 2015, DPAA personnel exhumed the USS Oklahoma Unknowns from the Punchbowl for analysis.
To identify Webb’s remains, scientists from DPAA used dental and anthropological analysis. Additionally, scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and Y-chromosome DNA (Y-STR) analysis.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) announced that Webb was accounted for July 29, 2019.
Webb’s name is recorded on the Courts of the Missing at the Punchbowl, along with the others who are still missing from WWII. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.
Webb’s remains are now resting alongside nearly 250 military servicemen at Dale Cemetery — nearly 40 of them were in the U.S. Navy.
Before Webb, of the 24 local Navy graves marked with the WWII distinction at the grounds, all came home alive.
Webb now represents one of a few WWII casualties buried there. According to the Oklahoma Veterans Memorial website, at oklahomaveteransmemorial.us, two other locals also are listed among the war dead. PFC U.S. Marine Carl J. Ringer died Jan. 15, 1944, and Oklahoma PVT 8 Cavalry 1 Billie R. Chew, died May 23, 1945.
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