After two burials and 78 years, Pearl Harbor sailor's remains finally home
By SARAH LADD | Louisville Courier Journal | Associated Press | Published: October 12, 2019
CORBIN, Ky. — Machinist's Mate 1st Class Ulis Claud Steely came home for the first time in more than 78 years.
When the sailor first left home in 1934, it was with Annapolis aspirations. His dad, the Rev. Edward Steely of Poplar Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Corbin, signed his enlistment papers in Lexington when Ulis was just 17.
When he came home on Oct. 3, it was in a flag-draped casket.
Nine Japanese torpedoes capsized the USS Oklahoma, on which Steely was assigned, on Dec. 7, 1941 — Pearl Harbor. He was thought lost forever.
The ship sat upside-down in the harbor across three years, and 429 sailors, including Steely, were unrecoverable. When the ship was righted, 35 sailors' remains were identified immediately.
Steely, born in a landlocked state whose draw to the ocean drove him to seek a career in the Navy, wasn't one of them. He was buried in Hawaii along with 388 other unidentified sailors.
Disinterred in 1947 for more testing, Steely's remains again weren't identified.
Classified as non-recoverable, he was buried a second time, at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. There he rested until 2015, when scientists exhumed the remains of Steely and his shipmates to test their mitochondrial DNA. This time, things were different.
He was classified "accounted for" in October 2018.
It took two burials, two rounds of testing, travel to at least four states and 78 years. But on Oct. 3, 2019, MM1c Ulis Steely began the long journey home.
Oct. 3. 0548. Gate A2. Eppley Airfield. Omaha, Nebraska
Navy Lt. Shahana Brown walked by passengers in her Navy service dress blues. She took a seat at the gate, alone, facing a window overlooking the airfield.
She'd come to escort the remains of her fallen comrade, a man who died before she was born.
Her mission was to get Steely home safe and sound. She couldn't talk about it. Steely coming home was a military mission.
Aboard the aircraft, the pilot spoke over the intercom about what he called a "sad duty and great honor" to carry Steely on the first leg of his journey home. He read facts about Steely's life. His death.
"We honor Machinist Steely," he said before alluding to Abraham Lincoln's words at Gettysburg. "Who selflessly gave the last full measure of devotion to his country."
Passengers listened, silent.
Oct. 3. 1044. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Atlanta, Georgia
Steely's casket inched down a beltway off the plane's belly for the four-hour layover.
He wasn't alone.
A row of six volunteers, clad in yellow vests, waited to see him safely to his next flight. Their faces were somber, their backs straight.
"Honor Guard," the vests read, the words circling the image of an eagle. "The nation that forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten."
Not all these Delta Airlines Honor Guard members were veterans. But they stood at attention to salute Steely, to shake Lt. Brown's hand, to hold high the flags of different military branches. Navy. Army. Marines.
"This is kinda my way of serving," said Brian McConnell, who heads the Delta Honor Guard. A medical issue kept him from serving. Now, he finds meaning in taking care of every first responder or soldier on their way home. Over 37 years, he has seen 6,000 caskets come through.
Standing over the casket as it was transferred from the plane to a small trailer, he read a prayer written by the Rev. Donna Mote. He'd read it more times than he could count. But it still made him cry.
"We will cherish them in our memories, we will honor them with what we say and do, we will not forget their sacrifice and they will forever live in our hearts.
"We pray for the safe keeping of our men and women of our armed forces, at home and abroad, that they may be defended, protected and strengthened, and know that they are not forgotten.
"We pray for the escort of this dedicated warrior, that they may have the strength, courage and wisdom to perform the sacred duty that lies before them."
In the Delta Honor Guard office, Steely's picture lay on McConnell's desk. He'd been reading up on him. Just as he does for all the fallen.
He keeps photos on his computer of every one he sees come through Atlanta. As he scrolls through, he knows each of their stories. His face lights up when he talks about them. What made them heroes.
He read how Steely served in Washington, was assigned to the USS Oklahoma. He wonders if the sailor whose relatives said was full of life was in the engine room when the attack came. He read how Steely reenlisted in 1938, and again in 1940, never losing sight of Annapolis.
Oct. 3. 1407. Bluegrass Field. Lexington, Kentucky
The last flight MM1c Steely would ever take landed on Oct. 3.
As the plane taxied to the gate, Steely got a water cannon salute from two firetrucks on the tarmac.
Passengers who'd never heard his name applauded. Some cried.
"Wow, look at this," one man said, pointing to goosebumps down his forearms.
Against a bright sky stood a row of sailors in dress whites. They approached the plane and carried their fallen comrade to the hearse.
On all corners of a white hearse from Hart Funeral Home in Corbin, Patriot Guards held American flags.
Next to the hearse, a couple clung to each other. She wore red, white and blue and held an American flag larger than herself. He took videos then paused to wipe a tear.
They were Dean and Lorrie Steely, Ulis's grandson and his grandson's wife.
Dean never knew his grandpa, but he thinks he's been his guardian angel all along.
"I've had issues in my life," he said. "And someone watched over me. I always thought about him."
Oct. 3. 1655. Main Street. Corbin, Kentucky
Hundreds of people from a southern Kentucky town of about 7,000 lined Main Street. The very young and the very old held American flags. One woman said she waited several hours to see Steely come through.
The Kentucky State Police, the Patriot Guard, Rolling Thunder, AMVETS Riders, Combat Vet Riders and the Christian Motorcycle Association — all escorted Steely to a town he might not have recognized.
They passed beneath two banners bearing Steely's likeness, his predominant eyebrows popping against the evening sky.
The freight trains are silent here in what was once a railroad town, said Corbin Mayor Suzie Razmus. Corbin doesn't have any industry to speak of now.
When Steely left Corbin, prohibition kept it dry, but no longer.
What he would recognize, Razmus said, is Corbin's strong sense of community. Steely's identification and trip home hit the town hard.
"The feelings that the country have for the greatest generation is felt very strongly everywhere obviously," she said. "But we're a rural community. Family is everything to us. Home is everything to us."
The people don't need to know Ulis to respect him. His family name is enough. His uniform is enough.
"He's almost like all of ours."
Oct. 4. 1830. Hart Funeral Home. Corbin, Kentucky
Outside the funeral home, members of American Legion Post 88 stood at attention holding flags and greeting those who came for the visitation. Before them, a large banner bore Steely's name, the words "Our fallen hometown hero" and the famous words of the United States Naval Academy fight song:
Anchors Aweigh, my boys, anchors aweigh. Farewell to college joys. We sail at the break of day. Through our last night on shore, drink to the foam.
Until we meet once more, here's wishing you a happy voyage home.
Inside, the song "Arms of an Angel" played softly.
Folks with the last name Steely, who were meeting for the first time, gathered in the yellow pews facing a silver titanium casket bearing two coins — one from the Delta Honor Guards and one from the American Legion.
On either side of the casket sat fresh flowers from the Navy.
By the guest book, a small card listed Steely's medals. Purple Heart. Combat Action Ribbon. Navy Good Conduct Medal. World War II Victory Medal. American Defense Service Medal. Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal.
Clad in Navy whites, members of the Disabled Veterans lined the aisle. Retired Air Force Sgt. Troy Davis read a prayer before each veteran passed by Steely's casket, saluting him before walking away.
Members of the Patriot Guard took turns staying with him all night.
Oct. 5. 0800. Grace on the Hill Church. Corbin, Kentucky
One by one, Patriot Guard and American Legion Post 88 riders drove their motorcycles into the parking lot of Hart Funeral Home. They stood holding flags as Steely was taken from the funeral home and loaded into the white hearse, saluting his remains as they passed.
Just two stops to go.
A procession headed to Grace on the Hill Church passed through the town where Steely's young wife, Dorothy, was when she got the telegram saying her husband had died in the line of duty. First the hearse, then a few cars, then at least 40 motorcycles, one of them blaring taps.
One man saluted from beside his parked motorcycle as the hearse passed.
Another knelt on the sidewalk.
A row of three women stood in the grass away from the road, all with hands to their hearts.
Inside Grace on the Hill's auditorium, Dean Steely's body shook as "Amazing Grace" played over the speakers in honor of his grandpa.
Dean's grandmother, Steely's wife, Dorothy, always sung that song when he was a child.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I'm found.
Taking up the right side of the church, the Whitley County High School ROTC was a collective of somber faces.
Pastor Bobby Joe Eaton, who now leads Poplar Grove as Steely's dad once did, gave a salvation message to the hundreds of people gathered — veterans. Men in suits. Babies.
Retired Petty Officer 2nd Class Les Williamson blew the Bosun whistle, a call to attention when a shipmate leaves their ship for the last time.
"Machinist's Mate First Class Ulis Steely," Williamson bellowed, "having made the supreme sacrifice, having given the last full measure in defense of this great nation, fair winds and smooth seas to you, my shipmate. Your duty is done. Your watch is now over. We now have the helm."
He then rang a bell eight times, signaling the end of a sailor's shift.
Eight bells, all is well.
Oct. 5. 1230. Corinth Cemetery. Corbin, Kentucky
The American flags could be seen long before any faces, lined up against a black picket fence, blowing in the wind at the cemetery tucked against Daniel Boone National Forest.
A casket-bearing team from the Navy Operational Support Center in Knoxville carried Steely and laid him before a headstone his parents, Ed and Minnie, bought a year after he died, long before they knew if he'd be recovered.
Below his name, they engraved the words, "He gave his life at Pearl Harbor and died that we might have our freedom."
For decades, that headstone cast a shadow on an empty hole.
Seven sailors with the Navy Information Operations Command shot thrice into the air. Twenty-one shots.
A young sailor, standing away from the group of townspeople gathered under a green tent, played taps.
The flag that had covered Steely's silver casket for days, folded meticulously, was given to Dean. It was folded 13 times, the first fold for the gift of life. The last for "In God We Trust."
Into the hole, Dean lowered a small brown box containing his own father's ashes. Steely's son.
When all were gone, Steely was resting safely next to his parents and a baby brother who died in infancy.
Machinist's Mate 1st Class Ulis Steely is home for good, facing Eastern Kentucky foothills that the locals say have no name.