The envelope had yellowed with age. A postmark dated March 12, 1942 reads, “Remember Pearl Harbor”.
No one needed to tell its recipient, Lillian Hultgren, to remember Dec. 7, 1941. It was the day her son, Lorentz Hultgren, died along with 428 other men on the USS Oklahoma.
The Japanese attack took 2,403 lives in all, including Hultgren’s brother-in-law and Oklahoma crew mate, Chester Seaton. Hultgren and Seaton had grown up in Tacoma.
The Oklahoma took some of the first hits in the attack that brought the United States into World War II. The battleship sank to the bottom of Pearl Harbor within minutes after being struck by Japanese torpedoes.
It took the Navy a year to salvage the ship and remove the remains of 390 sailors and marines inside. By then, the bodies were unidentifiable and co-mingled.
In 1944, the Navy placed the remains in 52 coffins and buried them in a military cemetery in Honolulu.
A chance find
More than a decade ago, Everett resident and self-described bibliophile James Hamilton purchased a book in a used bookstore in Tacoma.
When he got home, he found two letters dated March 10, 1942 and Dec. 18, 1944 in one envelope. The letters were from the U.S. Navy and both addressed to Lillian Hultgren at her Tacoma home.
They were responses to letters the mother had sent the Navy in which she inquired about her son’s remains and personal effects.
Hamilton tucked the letters away for safe keeping.
Despite their formality, the letters are heartbreaking to read. The other half of the conversation is lost to time but the silence, steeped in pain, is still palpable after 80 years.
“My dear Mrs. Hultgren,” the 1942 letter from Randall Jacobs, chief of the Navy’s bureau of navigation begins.
He was writing to Lillian in response to a letter she sent to the Navy two months after her son, a Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class, perished.
“At this time you have doubtless received the sad report informing you that after exhaustive efforts to locate your son proved unsuccessful he was officially declared dead as of December 7, 1941.”
Lillian evidently had hoped to get back her son’s watch and rings he wore.
“In view of the fact that his body was not recovered, the rings and watch that he wore probably will not be recovered,” Jacobs wrote.
The letter was probably an iteration of hundreds Jacobs wrote in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. When Jacobs died in 1967, a New York Times obituary described him as, “the man who furnished the men for the Navy during World War II.”
In September 1944, Lillian wrote another letter to the Navy inquiring about her son’s remains. In a response dated Dec. 18, 1944, Lt. Cmdr R. H. Tanck of the U.S. Navy Yard in Pearl Harbor said her son’s remains had been buried with full military honors in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, also known as the Punch Bowl.
“Although all bodies of those who died at their post of duty on the U.S.S. Oklahoma have now been recovered, due to the inaccessibility to reach them for so long a time, they could not be identified,” Tanck said.
The letter ends with a promise to send Lillian a memento from the Oklahoma.
Hamilton, 76, wondered if he could track down Hultgren’s family members so he could return the letters to them. He didn’t feel right keeping them. The thought slowly gnawed away at him for years.
“There was probably a family there in Tacoma who would be interested in those,” Hamilton said. “These are important papers. They were very important to me. And for me, just to have them and end up in the trash when I pass … it was too sad a thought.”
Hamilton is particularly attuned to the history of World War II. His father and three uncles served overseas in World War II. Hamilton was born a year after the conflict ended and his father named him after one of his uncles who was killed in battle in France.
When Hamilton turned 17, he joined the Marine Corps Reserve.
Earlier this year and after fruitless online searches, he reached out to The News Tribune. Unbeknownst to Hamilton, the newspaper had already briefly mentioned Hultgren in a 2018 story about Chet Seaton’s remains being identified and returned to his family.
Hamilton hoped the newspaper could track down Hultgren’s family.
That proved difficult.
Hultgren and his wife Beatrice (Seaton’s sister) hadn’t had any children. Beatrice remarried and the children from the second marriage and other family members had lost touch with the Hultgren family over the years.
Uncle Chet and Uncle Lorentz were seldom spoken about by the generation that knew them, their younger family members said. They think it was probably too painful to talk about.
With the help of Leanne Wiese, a dedicated amateur California genealogist, a family member of Hultgren’s was found in October.
Tacoma resident Terry Hughes is Hultgren’s first cousin, twice removed. She is something of a genealogist and historian herself.
Last week, The News Tribune returned the letters to Hughes.
Hughes, 40, said her grandmother grew up in the same house with Hultgren.
“She kind of grew up with (Hultgren), kind of like they were brother and sister,” Hughes said.
Her grandmother didn’t often speak of Hultgren.
“She would just say I had a cousin who died in Pearl Harbor and they never found him,” Hughes said. “She just wished she had known what happened. Did he just disappear? Or did he get killed?
“I think knowing that his bones had been identified would have put her mind at ease, knowing that he definitely had been recovered.”
Lost at sea
Hultgren’s death wasn’t the first seagoing tragedy to hit his family.
When Hughes was a girl, she would hear her grandmother tell stories of other family members.
“I heard her telling somebody a story about her grandfather being lost at sea, and he was believed to be a rum runner, but there was never really any proof of that,” she said.
Years later, Hughes researched the story and found that her great-great grandfather, Elmore Mason, — Hultgren’s grandfather — had died when the T.W. Lake, a Tacoma-based cargo ship, sank in Puget Sound’s Rosario Strait in a storm on Dec. 5, 1923.
Mason was the captain of the ship. Only a few bodies of the 14 men on board were recovered.
DNA hadn’t been discovered when the Oklahoma’s crew was buried.
In 2015, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) disinterred the Oklahoma crew’s remains and began identifying individual bones and skulls. It’s a painstaking task that requires DNA samples from living relatives to make the connection.
After being contacted by The News Tribune, Hughes reached out to a distant cousin who told her he and his mother had provided DNA to the DPAA.
In November, a spokesperson for the DPAA told The News Tribune that Hultgren’s remains had been identified and they will be reburied early in 2023 in the Punch Bowl with full military honors.
Hughes is grateful for Hamilton’s care and respect for the letters that are now safely back in her family’s hands.
“It’s amazing to me that somebody found it and was willing to actually try to pass it back to the family instead of just tossing it away,” she said.
She’s not going to make the same mistake someone did in the past.
“I’ll put them with the rest of the family history stuff and not tuck them in a book,” she said.
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