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Family buries the World War II hero they never knew who died on the USS Oklahoma

"Battleship Row" after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 Dec. 7, 1941. The capsized USS Oklahoma is visible in the foreground, behind her is USS Maryland. USS West Virginia burns on the right.

U.S. NAVY

By CRAIG SAILOR | The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.) | Published: August 8, 2018

TACOMA, Wash. (Tribune News Service) — For Chester Seaton, World War II started at 7:56 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941.

Ten minutes later, the Tacoma man was dead.

That’s how long it took the USS Oklahoma to sink to the bottom of Pearl Harbor after taking its first hit from a Japanese torpedo.

Seaton, 20 and a former student at Lincoln High School, was one of 429 men on the Oklahoma who died. The next day, the United States declared war on Japan.

Seaton was presumed dead, along with 389 other men, inside the capsized battleship.

His family was given a few personal effects — a Zippo lighter, a stencil marker kit and some coins — and the Purple Heart.

But he never had a funeral.

It wasn’t that Seaton’s body hadn’t been found — it had, along with his shipmates’. But over a year had passed when they were removed from the ship and identification was impossible.

On Wednesday, Seaton will finally get the funeral he was owed. Why it took 76 years is a testament to a family’s perseverance, a Navy that never forgot its dead and technology that was unimaginable in World War II.

For his family, it’s a chance to honor a man they never met.

“He’s our hero,” said his nephew, Tim Potter, 67, of Gig Harbor. “He doesn’t have to be a hero to anyone else. He’s our hero.”

USS Oklahoma

The Oklahoma was built in 1912. It was 583 feet long and side armor 13.5 inches thick.

In 1937, she was assigned to the Pacific Fleet, based out of Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the ship was moored on Battleship Row along Ford Island.

Its position made it an easy target and one of the first hit that day, when the Japanese launched their surprise attack.

Japanese planes flew over Hickam Field and lined up on Battleship Row. Torpedo planes dropped their payloads.

The initial torpedo strike hit the Oklahoma’s port side. The crew scrambled to man anti-aircraft guns but critical components were stored below and the guns couldn’t be fired.

As the ship tilted over, each successive torpedo hit higher up on the ship’s hull. Water poured in, flooding compartments.

“It was extremely quick,” Potter said. “It listed immediately.”

Naval reports say eight or nine torpedoes — one possibly from a Japanese minisub — hit the Oklahoma. Within 10 minutes, the huge ship heaved over, its superstructure hitting the muddy bottom of Pearl Harbor.

Some sailors survived.

“You can imagine being trapped upside down in there,” Potter said. “You wouldn’t know where you were.”

Alerted by their tapping, 32 men were able to escape after holes were cut in the ship’s hull.

The Oklahoma had been moored next to the newer USS Maryland. The pounding the Oklahoma took protected the Maryland. That ship received only light damage.

The Oklahoma’s 14 Marines and 415 sailors who died that day comprise the second largest group killed at Pearl Harbor — after the USS Arizona — 2,402 men and women. Of those who died, 390 were inside the Oklahoma.

The Arizona and the USS Utah still lie in Pearl Harbor, their crews entombed inside.

Most of the other ships damaged on that day, even those that sunk, were repaired and returned to service.

The Oklahoma’s damage was too extensive to repair and its location made it an obstacle in the harbor. It had to be removed.

Work began in 1942 and in May 1943 the ship was righted. Over the next six months, crews moved from compartment to compartment as the ship was gradually refloated, removing human remains as they found them.

In 1944, the Navy placed the unidentified remains of the 390 Oklahoma men in 52 coffins and buried them in cemeteries on Oahu.

The Oklahoma later was sold to a California salvage firm. On May 17, 1947, during the ship’s voyage to the mainland, a storm caused it to take on water. The captains of the two tugs pulling it cut their lines just before the Oklahoma dragged them to the bottom of the Pacific, 500 miles from Hawaii.

Nebraska Boy

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, on Aug. 8, 1921, Seaton moved to Tacoma with his parents, two brothers and two sisters in the mid-1920s.

Seaton’s father, Ernest, worked in the relatively new industry of electricity. He died in 1928 when Seaton was 7.

His mother, Alice, was a maid. After her husband died, she had to support her family on $1,290 a year plus $35 a month from a life insurance policy, according to Seaton’s nephew, Greg Seaton, 72, of Morgan Hill, California.

Chester Seaton had struggled as a student and dropped out of Lincoln High in 1937 during the 10th grade.

Seaton, 5 feet 7 and 137 pounds, worked as a landscaper until joining the Navy at age 18 in 1940. After seaman training in San Diego, he was sent to the Oklahoma.

He was promoted to fireman first class. Coincidentally, his brother-in-law, Lorentz Hultgren, also was assigned to the Oklahoma as a machinist mate second class.

Hultgren was another Tacoma kid, married to Seaton’s sister, Beatrice. Hultgren also died on the Oklahoma and his remains have been identified as well.

Everyone who knew the two Tacoma boys are dead now. How Seaton’s family reacted to their deaths is lost to time.

But one story is part of family lore.

Looking for revenge after Pearl Harbor, Seaton’s youngest brother, Dick, joined the Marines at age 14 by forging his mother’s signature on enlistment papers.

“My grandmother had to write letters to get him kicked out,” Greg Seaton said.

Dick Seaton later joined the Air Force, served in Korea and married a Japanese woman.

Seaton’s nieces and nephews grew up in post-war America. They recall a large family with aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings.

“When we got together, it was a good time,” Potter said.

Uncle Chet, however, was never brought up.

“Nobody would say anything,” Greg Seaton said. “We have very little knowledge of who he was.”

Potter and Greg Seaton speculate that their missing uncles were subjects just too painful for their family to speak about.

“I don’t ever remember Grandma mentioning that Uncle Chet died on the Oklahoma,” Potter said. “And I talked to her about everything.”

Finding Uncle Chet

With the war over in 1947, the military’s Graves Registration Service disinterred the 52 coffins holding the remains of the Oklahoma crew and took them to Schofield Barracks’ Central Identification Laboratory north of Pearl Harbor.

The plan was to use dental and medical records to make positive identifications. But by then, the bones had been co-mingled so badly that it was impossible to identify complete sets.

“There weren’t enough dental records available,” Potter said. “They couldn’t match anything.”

The remains were put in 61 coffins, segregated by type (skulls, mandibles, femurs, etc.) and buried in National Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu.

That’s where the story could have ended.

But just a few years later scientists discovered DNA, the basic building blocks of life.

The closer a person is related to another person, the more likely they share sections of DNA.

It took decades for science to develop the technology for DNA identification. Now used by criminologists to solve decades-old murders and by ordinary citizens to discover their roots, it also can be used to find familial connections in long-buried remains.

When Greg Seaton heard about renewed efforts to identify the Oklahoma crew in 2015, he contacted the Navy to see if he could start the process of identifying his uncles.

It turns out the Navy was already on the hunt for Chester Seaton’s relatives.

“The guy says DNA had already been submitted,” Greg Seaton recalled of his call to the Navy. “I said, ‘By whom?’ The guy told me the names. It was my cousins. I hadn’t seen them in 55 years.”

In 2009, Potter received a large manila envelope in the mail. The Navy was asking for his and his four brothers’ DNA.

Potter and his brothers were the son of Janice “Tootie” Seaton — Chester’s younger sister. Maternal linked markers on the mens’ DNA would help identification, the Navy said.

“They had already taken the DNA sample from Uncle Chet’s remains,” Potter said.

Earlier this year on Jan. 13, Greg’s eldest sister, Jackie — the eldest of her generation — got a call: Uncle Chet had been identified.

In May, the family met with Navy personnel to go over details of his return and burial.

The information the Navy provided included photos. One showed Seaton’s skull. Several teeth had been knocked out before his death, most likely from an explosion, Greg Seaton said.

Coming Home

On Wednesday, Seaton will be buried in Tacoma Cemetery next to his father, mother, brother Dick and Dick’s wife Cheiko.

“We thought Grandma would want him to be with her,” Potter said.

He often bring flowers to the graves of his family.

“We talk to them at the grave site,” Potter said. “It’ll be nice to share with Grandma that Chet’s home.”

The full military funeral will feature a speech from a Navy admiral.

“We’re looking forward to it,” Potter said. “It’ll bring some closure to us as the nephews and nieces.”

Potter and Greg Seaton haven’t seen each other since they were boys.

“It’s brought our family back together,” Potter said. “Heck of a way to do it.”

“I hadn’t seen them since the 1950s,” Greg Seaton said of his Washington cousins.

The family chose Aug. 8 for the funeral. It would have been Uncle Chet’s 97th birthday.

©2018 The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)
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