Paul Boemer

Paul Boemer (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency)

ST. LOUIS (Tribune News Service) — After more than 80 years gone, Paul Boemer finally returned from Hawaii.

And Vince Boemer — who gently accepted the folded American flag that had covered his brother’s casket — was happy to welcome him back.

“He was a good man,” Boemer said. “He was a good older brother.”

Earlier this month, Paul Boemer was laid to rest at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, in a ceremony scored by the playing of taps and a 21-gun salute. Family, friends, a Navy honor guard in dress whites and several dozen Freedom Rider veterans stood with reverence on a sunny, humid St. Louis day.

“It’s a great honor to be part of this,” said Vince Boemer, who soon will turn 98. “It’s wonderful to see the U.S. government go to these lengths to honor its veterans.”

To be sure, Paul Boemer did not plan to be gone so long when he enlisted in the Navy in late 1938.

After growing up in south St. Louis, the eighth of 10 children, and graduating from Cleveland High School, the lanky 18-year-old decided on a stint in the military.

He completed basic training, and the Navy assigned the new coxswain — a sailor who helps steer a ship — to the USS Oklahoma. So Boemer boarded a troop transport in Norfolk, Va., and sailed to the ship’s home port, Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

That’s where Boemer was stationed in 1939 — and on Dec. 7, 1941.

On that day, Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet; the USS Oklahoma was struck by two torpedoes. The battleship quickly capsized, claiming the lives of 429 crewman.

Paul Boemer was a month shy of turning 22.

In all, 2,403 U.S. personnel died that Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor and 19 vessels were destroyed or damaged.

But because of “these lengths” taken by the U.S. government, Vince Boemer finally got to see his big brother buried in his hometown.

‘It’s for the families’

The effort began with the graves of the unknown USS Oklahoma dead who had been interred for decades in “The Punchbowl.”

Officially known as the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, The Punchbowl (a volcanic crater) in Honolulu was where 389 unidentified sailors from the USS Oklahoma were buried, and where they remained until 2015.

That year, the federal government’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency initiated its “USS Oklahoma Project.”

The project was based at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska and aimed to put names to as many of the unknown crewmen as possible. In all, 355 of the 389 unknown sailors were identified.

The work — which project leader Carrie LeGarde called “overwhelming” and “rewarding” — has one simple goal: “We try to give the living answers about the dead,” she said.

To do that, LeGarde said five years were spent on the painstaking, gruesome work of cataloging remains.

A forensic anthropologist, LeGarde has worked for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency for 10 years and joined the USS Oklahoma Project in 2019.

She conceded that the efforts were not for the squeamish.

LeGarde said the first step was to exhume the many caskets, open them, unwrap the remains and begin sorting them.

“Every bone was documented and given a number and then entered into a database,” she said. Then, researchers went through all the bones again “to see which ones did, or didn’t, go together.”

“It came down to doing things like separating (the bones of) left arms from right arms,” she said.

A most crucial part of the project was DNA testing, LeGarde said, noting that arm and leg bones, skulls and pelvic bones provided the best testing material.

After those tests were performed, the remains were again divided into groups based on age, height and race.

While that work went on, the Navy Casualty Office contacted survivors of crewmen to ask for DNA samples in order to make valid comparisons.

“That’s the critical piece, the DNA sample from a living relative,” LeGarde said.

So finally, in September 2020, the positive identification of Paul Boemer was made, the Navy reported.

The Navy Casualty Office took over from there, contacting the Boemer family and starting arrangements to move the body back home — an endeavor that culminated with the May 11 service at Jefferson Barracks.

LeGarde said these memorial services are precisely what keep her and her colleagues dedicated to their task.

“I would love to get a chance to meet the families,” she said. “That’s why we do this, it’s for the families.”

To be sure, Vince Boemer felt fortunate to be at his brother’s service. But he’s lucky to be here at all — for he has his own war story to tell.

After graduating in 1943 from Cleveland High, he joined the Army. Of nine Boemer boys, six served in the military during World War II.

In 1945, while with the Army’s 42nd Infantry “Rainbow” Division in the Philippines, his squad was ambushed and he was shot in the hip and side.

Boemer said he had to drag himself, half-conscious, into the thicket along the trail to avoid capture by the Japanese patrol.

He was unsure how long he had laid bleeding in the bush, but four Filipino women from a nearby village eventually found him and carried him out of the jungle.

Even then, his thoughts turned to his older brother.

“My biggest worry was getting word home to my mom that I was alright,” he said. “I know how hard (Paul’s) death was on her. She’d passed out when she got the news and I didn’t want that to happen to her again.”

‘I want them to remember’

At the May 11 service, Boemer sat next to two old friends, creating a tableau that is more rare each passing day: three living World War II veterans in one place.

Dan and Edgar Krattli, brothers from Pine Lawn, both served in the Navy. A submarine service veteran, Dan Krattli, 98, said with a smile upon introduction, “I’m that one Navy veteran who never learned to swim.”

The brothers did not meet Vince Boemer until after the war, when they were all students in 1946 at Principia College.

“I went from hell to heaven in a year,” Vince Boemer said. “With so many guys still in the service, the female-to-male ratio was about 8 to 1.”

Vince Boemer married his wife, Jean, in 1955. Together for 67 years now, the couple has had three children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

And that line of descendants will one day receive the flag that Vince Boemer clutched at his brother’s service, and which now sits in a display case at his home in Town and Country.

“I want them to remember,” Boemer said as he looked out across the national cemetery’s orderly expanse. “And I want my brother to rest in the radiance of God’s love.”


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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