Finally Home: St. Louis Pearl Harbor Sailor Finally Identified, Buried | Subway
After more than 80 years, Paul Boemer has finally returned from Hawaii.
And Vince Boemer – who kindly accepted the folded American flag that had covered his brother’s coffin – 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 marked by tap dancing and a 21-gun salute. Family, friends, a white-dressed Navy honor guard and several dozen Freedom Rider veterans stood in reverence on a sunny, humid day in St. Louis.
“It’s a great honor to be a part of this,” said Vince Boemer, who will soon be 98. “It’s wonderful to see the US government go to such lengths to honor its veterans.”
Admittedly, Paul Boemer hadn’t planned to be away for so long when he enlisted in the Navy at the end of 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 to make a stint in the military.
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He underwent 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 homeport, Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
This is where Boemer was stationed in 1939 – and on December 7, 1941.
That day, Japan launched a surprise attack on the American Pacific Fleet; USS Oklahoma was hit by two torpedoes. The battleship quickly capsized, claiming the lives of 429 crew members.
Paul Boemer was one month away from turning 22.
A total of 2,403 American soldiers died this Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor and 19 ships were destroyed or damaged.
But because of “those lengths” taken by the US government, Vince Boemer was finally able to see his big brother buried in his hometown.
“It’s for families”
The effort began with the graves of the unknown dead from the USS Oklahoma who had been buried for decades in “The punch bowl.
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 POW/MIA Defense Accounting Agency launched its “USS Oklahoma project”.
The project was based at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska and aimed to put names on as many unknown crew members as possible. A total of 355 of the 389 unknown sailors have been identified.
The work – which project manager Carrie LeGarde called “overwhelming” and “rewarding” – has a simple goal: “We’re trying to give the living answers about the dead,” she said.
To do this, LeGarde said five years were spent in the painstaking and gruesome work of cataloging the remains.
A forensic anthropologist, LeGarde 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 faint-hearted.
LeGarde said the first step was to exhume the many coffins, open them, unpack the remains and begin sorting them out.
“Each bone was documented and given a number and then entered into a database,” she said. Then the researchers went through all the bones again “to see which ones did or didn’t go together.”
“It was about doing things like separating (the bones) of the left arms from the 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 these tests, the remains were again divided into groups based on age, size and race.
While this work continued, the Navy Casualty Office contacted surviving crew members to request DNA samples in order to make valid comparisons.
“It’s the essential 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 arranging to bring the body home – an endeavor that culminated in the May 11 service at Jefferson Barracks.
LeGarde said these memorial services are precisely what keeps her and her colleagues dedicated to their work.
“I would love the chance to meet the families,” she said. “That’s why we’re doing this, it’s for families.”
Certainly, Vince Boemer considered himself lucky to be in the service of his brother. But he’s lucky to be here, because 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 army during World War II.
In 1945, while serving with the Army’s 42nd “Rainbow” Infantry Division in the Philippines, his squad was ambushed and he was shot in the hip and side.
Boemer said he had to drag himself, semi-conscious, through the thicket along the trail to avoid being captured by the Japanese patrol.
He didn’t know how long he had spent bleeding in the bush, but four Filipina women from a nearby village eventually found him and took him out of the jungle.
Even then, his thoughts turned to his older brother.
“My biggest worry was letting my mom know I was okay,” he said. “I know how hard (Paul’s) death was for her. She had passed out when she heard 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 grows rarer with 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. Submarine service veteran Dan Krattli, 98, said with a smile during the presentation, “I’m this Navy veteran who never learned to swim.”
The brothers only met Vince Boemer 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 serving, the female-to-male ratio was around 8 to 1.”
Vince Boemer married his wife, Jean, in 1955. Together for 67 years now, the couple had three children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
And that line of descendants will one day receive the flag that Vince Boemer held in service to his brother, and which now hangs in a display case at his home in Town and Country.
“I want them to remember,” Boemer said, looking across the orderly expanse of the national cemetery. “And I want my brother to rest in the radiance of God’s love.”