More than 80 years after Herbert “Bert” Jacobson was one of 429 Americans killed aboard the USS Oklahoma in the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the remains of the former Grayslake resident were laid to rest with full military honors Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Jacobson, a Navy fireman who attended machinist school at Naval Station Great Lakes near North Chicago, was surrounded by his nephew and nieces, and other extended family members as he was at last buried.
Brad McDonald, Jacobson’s nephew, has spent years continuing the work of his parents, Norma and Orville, trying to find Bert’s remains.
“ (My parents) tried over and over again to come up with some answers,” McDonald said. “I have a stack of documents that are her letters to the Pearl Harbor Association, the USS Oklahoma Association, the Department of Defense, the Navy, individuals and anybody that had information on him and what happened on Dec. 7.”
Hard work aside, only serious technological advances in recent decades made identification possible for dozens of families whose searches have spanned generations.
Nowadays, McDonald tells the story of his long-lost uncle with an air of satisfied finality, as well as pride. Jacobson will be laid to rest on the birthday of his mother, Mabel, who ensured for decades that his memory was strongly imprinted on his descendants.
“It’s like an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone,’” McDonald said Friday with a soft laugh. “I’m expecting Rod Serling to pop up any minute.”
Jacobson trained at Great Lakes Naval Academy, a short drive from Grayslake, and he and his new Navy friends would hitchhike home or call in advance for a ride from family.
In short order, Jacobson grew close with Orville McDonald, Chet Jankowski and Henry Ford II, the eldest grandson of Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford. Brad said that Bert took Orville, who was an orphan, “under his wing” and that the four were nicknamed the “Four Musketeers.”
Orville would later marry Bert’s sister, Norma, who was Brad’s mother.
“There’s where romance began,” he added. “(My parents) actually got married because of Bert’s introduction. So without Bert, I wouldn’t be here. And to honor Bert, they got married on Bert’s birthday.”
McDonald warmly recalls part of his own childhood spent in Grayslake, where he would spend time with friends downtown and fish at Grays Lake with Orville, who never would have settled there if it weren’t for Jacobson.
“There was a bakery down there,” McDonald said. “I swear, you could gain weight just sniffing the air in that place. It was really good. I have a lot of great, great memories of (Grayslake).”
Since Mabel Jacobson’s passing, and in 2007, Norma’s, McDonald has remained steadfastly hopeful that Jacobson’s remains would be identified.
However unlikely, he viewed it as a way to honor the legacies of his uncle, grandma and mother.
“My mother, she was still in high school when Bert was killed,” McDonald said. “Being at home with her mother and seeing how much she was devastated by not only his loss, but the fact there was no body to bury. There was no funeral service in Grayslake. There was no way to say goodbye to Bert.”
McDonald believes that inability to gain closure hung around for the rest of Norma’s and especially Mabel’s lives.
The youngest of Mabel’s many siblings, also named Herbert, died as a young child.
“When Grandma lost Bert at Pearl Harbor, it was a double whammy,” McDonald remembers. “She not only lost her son, but she lost that name again of her favorite little brother who died young.”
The Jacobsons weren’t the only family to go through that pain.
According to the Department of Defense’s Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency, more than 72,000 Americans who fought in World War II remain missing, many believed to be at sea.
Through Project USS Oklahoma, which launched in 2015, the Navy has successfully identified the remains of at least 355 of 388 unaccounted service members who are believed to have perished at Pearl Harbor.
Family members of those lost volunteer to participate in a DNA profiling process that begins with individual samples, gathered through mail in hopes of positive matches.
McDonald said the Navy has recovered “the majority of the remains,” and that it shared details of which body parts had been confirmed with members of Jacobson’s extended family.
“I’m just completely bedazzled by this whole process, of what they do and how they do it,” McDonald said.
McDonald met Jankowski, Jacobson’s old friend, at a USS Oklahoma reunion years ago, where Jankowski told him that Jacobson had spent hours the night before the attack ferrying crew members ashore for a night out on the town.
“He got off duty at six in the morning, went below, filled out his report, went below decks, got showered, got something to eat and went to bed,” McDonald recalled. “He was in his bunks sleeping when the attack occurred.”
The news was a comforting thought after years of attending reunions and Pearl Harbor Association meetings across the country to glean any information they could about recovering the remains of those lost.
Having been compared to Jacobson because of his personality, creativity and shared resemblance, his burial is the end of a winding journey for McDonald and his sisters, Colleen and Dawn.
“We’d have Bert moments all the time, and Bert’s picture was in all of our houses and it still is to this day,” he said. “Each one of us kids has a picture of him. I’ve got one sitting here in the kitchen. What few pictures we did have of him, we cherish.”
The family honored Jacobson on Monday with an open coffin service, covering his remains with a Navy uniform, his Purple Heart medal, a photo the family took shortly before he shipped out to Hawaii, a scarf from his Navy dress uniform and a handkerchief from Mabel, which McDonald said the family has hung onto for years.
That Mabel never got to fully grieve her son’s death remains a tragic storyline in the Jacobson family’s history, which has wound on as her grandchildren have grown to have families of their own.
But her work is finished.
“It was a quest,” McDonald said. “And the quest has been fulfilled. I just wish my dad and mom could have been around to see that, or even my grandmother. I guess it just wasn’t to be.”
About a dozen family members, including Brad, his sisters Dawn and Colleen, brother-in-law, some second cousins from the Midwest and other extended family in the D.C. metro area attended Tuesday’s service.
“We’re going to know where Bert is,” McDonald said. “We’re going to know that he’s (at rest) and that he wasn’t forgotten.”
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