Sailor killed at Pearl Harbor returns home to Iowa after nearly 78 years

Photo By Petty Officer 1st Class Ty Bjornson | Rear Adm. Linnea Sommer-Weddington, Strategic Command, Offutt Air Force Base, receives the American flag from Chief Equipment Operator Mike Rhoades, Navy Operational Support Center Madison, during graveside service for Signalman 3rd Class William J. Shanahan Jr. Shanahan died serving aboard the USS Oklahoma (BB-37) during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. After nearly 78 years, Shanahan's body was identified using advanced technology and returned for burial in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Sept 3., 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ty Bjornson/Released)
September 05, 2019

Nearly 80 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor that thrust the United States into World War II, a Sailor killed in action aboard the ill-fated USS Oklahoma finally returned home to Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Signalman 3rd Class William J. Shanahan, Jr. followed in the footsteps of his father, a Navy veteran from the first World War, and enlisted in 1940. The USS Oklahoma was moored at Pearl Harbor when Japanese aircraft attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. Shanahan was 23 years old.

His youngest sister, Mary Lou Pierce,was just five years old when he enlisted, upset because it meant he would miss her upcoming birthday. Now 84, Pierce was finally able to say goodbye to the brother who left home decades earlier.

For several years after the USS Oklahoma capsized, Navy personnel worked to recover remains but only 35 individuals were identified—the rest were classified as non-recoverable and later interred in Hawaii. But in 2015, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency personnel exhumed the USS Oklahoma unknown remains for analysis, and on May 31, 2019, Shanahan’s remains were identified using advanced technology and DNA provided by Pierce.

“My mom really wanted to honor her parents’ wishes,” said Carmen Pierce, Shanahan’s niece. “They never gave up hope he would return home.”

Sailors from Navy Operational Support Center Rock Island served as the primary command to provide military honors and first received the remains on Aug. 30. Four days later, flags across the state of Iowa flew at half-mast by direction of the governor to honor Shanahan on the day of the funeral. Family, friends and the community at large converged at St. Patrick Catholic Church, the parish Shanahan attended as a boy.

Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Ann Jones—a volunteer escort with Navy Mortuary Affairs in Millington, Tenn.—stayed with Shanahan every step of the way.

“We ensure that each Sailor makes it home to their family,” explained Jones. “It is the most humbling thing I’ve ever done in my career.”

Rear Adm. Linnea Sommer-Weddington has participated in many funerals during her more than 35 years in the Navy and Navy Reserve. Retiring in just a few weeks, Sommer-Weddington said that bringing Navy honor and tradition to funerals commemorating Sailors who died in service to their country has been a career highlight.

“Not only was I able to recognize our Shipmate who made the ultimate sacrifice, I met his baby sister,” explained Sommer-Weddington, who presented Pierce with the American flag that was draped across the casket. “It is truly an honor and it is my hope that today will bring the Shanahan family comfort on December 7 for years to come.”

“Today brings relief,” said Mary Lou Pierce. “I’m happy he’s finally home.”

Though his parents and five other surviving siblings passed away before his remains were identified, Shanahan is finally at rest near his family at Mt. Cavalry Cemetery in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The inscription on his headstone reads, ‘Remember Pearl Harbor.’

During the military funeral honors, a three-volley salute rang out and later, a lone Navy musician played taps on the bugle. The crowd who gathered grew silent as they honored Shanahan, his USS Oklahoma shipmates and the more than 2,000 other Americans killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor. They will never forget.