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Family gets closure when 'phantom hero,' killed at Pearl Harbor, returns home

By MALLORY GRUBEN | The Daily News, Longview, Wash. | Published: June 14, 2019

(Tribune News Service) — Greg Smith wasn’t alive when his uncle Merle shipped out to Hawaii as an electrician’s mate with the U.S. Navy 80 years ago.

But Smith joined the welcome-home ceremony for Merle Andrew Smith on Tuesday at the Portland International Airport when the sailor who died in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor returned home. His previously unidentified remains had been buried in an unmarked grave at Punchbowl National Cemetery near Pearl Harbor for decades.

“It was really moving. Most all of the living cousins came and gathered (in Portland) and were able to finally make the full closure for the whole family. … It was quite the memorable event,” said Greg Smith, 68, of Longview.

Flanked by a Navy honor guard and the Patriot Riders, Merle Smith’s remains were taken to Willamette National Cemetery, where he received a full military service on Wednesday. Smith said the family chose to bury their relative in the military cemetery so he could rest alongside his fellow servicemen.

“There were no (direct) family members to make accommodations for him because they never thought he’d ever come back,” Smith said.

Merle Smith hailed from Woodland and was working on the battleship USS Oklahoma during the Pearl Harbor attack, when nine Japanese torpedoes struck the ship, sinking it. Many of the crew were buried as unknowns at a national cemetery in Honolulu. Smith was one of four Cowlitz County men among them.

Only 41 of 429 ship’s fallen crew members were positively identified and buried in their own graves. The other 388 were buried together in 62 caskets in 46 grave sites.

But in 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense approved a project to dig up the caskets and identify the men using modern forensic and DNA technology.

“When we found out that they were going to be exhuming the remains and doing DNA testing, the family got excited,” Smith said. “The last member of (Merle’s) generation, his youngest sister, was still alive at that time. They were able to get some DNA from her and her two daughters for the test.”

Though Merle Smith’s sister passed away shortly after giving a DNA sample to help identify her brother’s remains, her daughters attended his funeral service Wednesday to put their uncle to rest in his “own personal grave,” Smith said. (Francis E. Dick, another Woodland Navy man who died on the USS Oklahoma, was also recently returned home and laid to rest at the Vancouver Barracks Post Cemetery.)

Greg Smith’s 80-year-old brother, the oldest of Merle’s living relatives, gave a “very moving and emotional thank-you” to the team who helped identify and bring home their uncle.

“They’ve done a tremendous job. It was a huge effort on a lot of people to bring these people home,” Smith said. “The (servicemen) involved are given full honors and respect.… It’s incredible.” The pilot, Patriot Riders and many involved in the ceremonies “came out and shook our hands … to say, ‘It is a privilege and honor to see these men reunited with their family.’ ”

Smith said his uncle was the “phantom hero” of the family.

“There was never really any stories (about him). I think it was too traumatic for his parents to even talk about it.”

Merle Smith enlisted in the Navy in 1939.

According to stories from other military men stationed at Pearl Harbor, Merle Smith wasn’t originally scheduled to work on Dec. 7, 1941. He’d planned to partake in his usual Sunday schedule of church and lunch with a Navy officer, Smith said. But one of his shipmates was “totally incapacitated” from a night out drinking before, so Merle Smith had to take his place, his nephew said.

As an electrician, he worked on machinery below the deck. The USS Oklahoma sank quickly after the torpedoes hit it, and “those who were below decks really didn’t have much chance or time to get out,” his nephew said.

Merle Smith died at age 20, just three days short of his 21st birthday.

“It was just one of those things where circumstances aligned, and everything went haywire and wrong,” Smith said.

The sailor’s return to the Pacific Northwest this week was “just a bringing to an end of the story of our missing uncle,” Smith said.

Those involved in the story — whether as family members or those who assisted with Merle’s transport home — have been honored and moved to see the serviceman’s journey come to an end, Greg Smith said.

“The pilots were retired Air Force pilots, and they knew they were bringing Merle home,” Greg Smith said. “One of them told the passengers it was a special flight because they were returning home with a World War II soldier, and I guess the whole cabin of passengers burst into applause.”

©2019 The Daily News, Longview, Wash.

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