Liaison eases return of Pearl Harbor veterans' ashes

HONOLULU — Jim Taylor has a unique and special bond with 294 Pearl Harbor defenders and their families.

For close to 20 years the retired Navy master chief has volunteered his time to oversee the return of the deceased veterans' ashes to Pearl Harbor, the place that changed their lives forever on Dec. 7, 1941.

As the Pearl Harbor survivors liaison for Navy Region Hawaii, Taylor, 75, plans, organizes and conducts the farewell ceremonies for the families at the USS Utah Memorial on Ford Island.

Taylor has been there for the placement of ashes in the harbor and, in the case of nine Utah crew members, their return to the sunken hulk of their ship.

Utah crew members made him an honorary USS Utah survivor.

He also has officiated at interments at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl, and helped with the return of a crew member's ashes to the watery grave that is the USS Arizona.

Those who know Taylor say he not only honors the dead, but their families as well, who come from around the globe to return, one final time, those who fought in defense of the nation on the day of infamy.

"He represents what's best about our Navy, our nation and the human soul," said Navy Region Hawaii public affairs officers Agnes Tau­yan and Bill Doughty in their nomination of Taylor as a Hero Next Door.

Former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead told Taylor, "You are a beacon of comfort for sailors and families," when he presented him with the president's volunteer service award in 2010.

Marissa Batt — who corresponded with Taylor for about two years before the ashes of her father, Aviation Structural Mechanic 1st Class Benzion "Barney" Packman, and mother, Flor­ence, were scattered in Pearl Harbor on Friday — said Taylor was "so kind and so generous in terms of his time and patience."

"I just can't imagine anybody performing this function in a more personal and caring way," the Los Angeles resident said.

A chaplain and Navy captain usually attend the ceremonies along with a rifle detail and bugler who plays taps. Taylor relates details of the veteran's service, and a folded American flag is presented to families.

The care that Taylor exercises is borne out of 33 years spent in the Navy, a deep respect for the contributions of the greatest generation in World War II, and getting to know about the deceased veterans and their families who cross his path.

"I feel like I know them," Taylor said of the veterans. "I speak about every one of them."

Taylor related that during the Depression, Packman "was selling newspapers on the corner to make a few pennies to help his family have food."

At boot camp he "was loving it" while other complained. "He was loving it because the food was so great and the living conditions were a lot better than he had when he was growing up," Taylor said.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Packman was on Ford Island and was not feeling well, so he reported to the dispensary, where an aerial bomb landed in the courtyard. But luckily for Packman and everyone else there at the time, the bomb did not explode.

Packman later suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.

On the 50th anniversary of the attack, he returned to Pearl Harbor.

"He met a bunch of Pearl Harbor survivors at that ceremony, and he joined the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association after all those years," Taylor said. "And when he started communicating and chatting with people (who experienced) the same kind of things as in his career, he slowly worked himself out of PTSD."

Packman died in 1997 at age 77. He wanted his ashes scattered at Pearl Harbor but also wanted to be with his wife, Flor­ence. After she died two years ago, the family started planning for the trip to Hawaii, and seven family members and friends came out for the Friday ceremony.

"I've had two brothers come in from Scotland — all the way from Scotland to bury their dad, because this is where he wanted to be," Taylor said.

Taylor's time in the Navy included shore patrol duty in the Philippines, where he met his wife, Nora.

He retired in 1989 as command master chief of Patrol Squadron 22 at Barbers Point, then went to work for 18 years at Naval Brig Pearl Harbor, where he was assistant officer in charge.

It was then that Taylor started volunteering off-duty time to coordinate the Pearl Harbor interments, which he makes a point to say are a team effort, not just the work of one man.

"I coordinate, and I make sure everything goes right," he said.

As a longtime Navy man, Taylor understands the bonds that make a Pearl Harbor veteran want to be interred with shipmates, and he has a great appreciation for their sacrifices made during World War II.

"The Pearl Harbor survivors, and the ones that served throughout World War II, they don't talk a lot about it, but they created the mold that these kids (are in), fighting in Af­ghani­stan right now," he said.

He also assists living veterans when they visit.

Taylor is at his desk in the Navy Region Hawaii public affairs office nearly every day helping families coordinate trips back to Hawaii with the ashes of their loved ones — without any pay.

Taylor said he does it out of love for those veterans.

"I'm not the most religious guy in the whole wide world. I don't know why," he said. "But I still have this gut feeling that when we scatter the ashes and the service is over and the smiles come on the family faces, that they (the deceased veterans) are happy up there."

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