Lest we forget: The 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor brings along new memories and closure for Michigan families.
WATERVLIET, Mich.—Following the tragic school shooting that killed four in Oxford, Michigan’s flags remain hoisted halfway up their staffs today in recognition of Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, 80 years after Japanese submarines and bombers decimated a Hawaiian naval base, killing thousands.
Though now statewide just over 7,500 veterans of World War II are still living, according to the National WWII Museum located in New Orleans, the country remains steadfast in remembering every soldier’s story, life, and body.
“On Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, our state takes time to remember the courage and bravery of the men and women at Pearl Harbor,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement. “This day serves to honor the thousands of Americans who paid the ultimate price during the attack on our nation.”
On Dec. 7, 1941, Seaman 1st Class Wesley Graham from Watervliet, Michigan, was onboard the USS Oklahoma on a normal day of service. The events that unfolded in front of Graham’s eyes are unimaginable, but thanks to astute record-keeping, a reliable account of what happened is available to the public.
At 7:48 a.m. a fleet of 177 Japanese aircrafts swooped down from the skies to the Pearl Harbor Naval Base, unleashing a barrage of missiles and fire in an unprovoked attack. Meanwhile, Japanese submarines snuck into the harbor and fired torpedoes at aircraft carriers, ships, and vessels.
The crew of the USS Oklahoma rushed to man their stations and return fire, despite eight torpedo strikes that crippled the boat. The ninth torpedo that burst through the port side, however, proved too much for the behemoth battleship, and it sank to the ocean floor.
Onboard the USS Oklahoma, 429 men perished, including Graham and fellow Michigan natives Ensign Francis Flaherty and Seaman 1st Class Joe Nightingale.
“Our Nation remains forever indebted to all those who gave their last full measure of devotion eight decades ago,” President Joe Biden said in a declaration. “We will never forget those who perished, and we will always honor our sacred obligation to care for our service members, veterans, and their families, caregivers, and survivors.”
The 80th anniversary has given closure to the families and legacies of those who died during the Pearl Harbor attack, thanks to reinvestment and modern sciences. In 2015, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency undertook a project to identify the remains of previously unidentifiable bodies recovered from the USS Oklahoma using DNA technology.
Graham was one such success of the project, and he was returned home to Michigan to be laid to rest. His burial at home took place October 27, 2021.
After the fire settled in Pearl Harbor, Graham’s body was pulled from the rubble of the ship; at the time, he could not be identified. In 1947, the American Graves Registration Service tried again to identify victims by disinterring bodies and sending their remains to a laboratory for testing. However, the project was mainly fruitless, and the service could only identify another 35 people.
But the relaunch of the identification program in 2015 has been graced with far more success. Graham was one of 355 sailors and Marines to be successfully matched using DNA and dental records, as the project reached its end. Another 33 bodies could not be matched.
“It’s our responsibility as a nation to bring these sailors and Marines home to their families,” Capt. Robert McMahon, the head of the Navy’s casualty office, said during a conference announcing the findings. “We’ve sent them off to war.”
The unprompted attack led directly to the US’ involvement in World War II. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on Dec. 8 addressed Congress about the “day which will live in infamy,” asking them to approve a declaration of war against Japan. The resolution passed with one dissenting vote.
The subsequent war lasted four years and led to the deaths of nearly 300,000 Americans and more than 15,000 Michiganders.
“More than 600,000 veterans from Michigan answered the call to serve in the armed forces in the years following the attack on Pearl Harbor,” said US Army Maj. Gen. Paul D. Rogers, adjutant general and director of the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. “I’m humbled by the resilience of the American spirit and the bravery of the men and women who continue to inspire others to sacrifice for our freedoms.”