By LTC Frank Womble (USA, Ret.)
The roar of motorcycle engines interrupted the quiet Saturday morning in the rural town of Murfreesboro, North Carolina. A Patriot Guard escort, American flags snapping briskly in the breeze, led a black hearse followed by a convoy of family members in a solemn procession down Main Street on the short trip from the funeral home to Riverside Cemetery. On November 3rd, 2018, a fallen American serviceman finally returned home after nearly 80 years.
The youngest of eleven children, Jarvis Godwin Outland, known to his family and friends as Buddy, liked to hunt and fish in the woods and rivers of his native Hertford County. Perhaps seeking more adventure from life than a small town could offer, he enlisted in the Navy in 1938 at only seventeen years of age. He rose to the rank of Fireman First Class and was stationed aboard USS Oklahoma. He was likely at his duty station on that fateful Sunday morning in December 1941 at Pearl Harbor.
Berthed outboard alongside USS Maryland on Battleship Row, Oklahoma absorbed nine Japanese torpedoes, capsized, and sank in less than twelve minutes. Some of her crew scrambled to man the doomed ship’s anti-aircraft guns, then clambered aboard the adjacent Maryland to continue the fight once Oklahoma capsized. Sailors manning battle stations below the waterline were trapped. Thirty-two were rescued from the overturned vessel by a yard crew that cut through the bottom of her hull in the days after the attack. Of her crew complement of nearly 1,400 officers and enlisted men, 429 were killed or missing, a single-ship loss of life exceeded on that terrible day only by USS Arizona.
Early efforts to identify Oklahoma’s casualties were largely unsuccessful, with only 35 men confirmed identified in 1947. Unidentified remains were buried together as ‘Unknowns’ in 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, commonly known as the Punchbowl. In October 1949, a military board classified those who could not be identified as non-recoverable. One of those was Buddy Outland.
In June 2015, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency personnel began exhuming the remains of Oklahoma’s casualties from the Punchbowl. The advanced techniques, personnel, and capacity to maximize identification of the unknowns that were simply not available in the 1940s now existed. The challenging task of sorting and positively identifying the large number of co-mingled remains presents unique anthropological puzzles, so progress is slow and deliberate. More than 100 Oklahoma casualties have been identified, an ongoing process expected to take about five years. Several of Buddy’s paternal and maternal family members submitted DNA samples to assist in the effort. Mitochondrial DNA analysis resulted in the positive identification of his remains in March 2018.
The return of the missing is a bittersweet occasion. Buddy’s parents and all of his siblings were deceased by the time he came home. His surviving nieces, nephews and cousins had not lost hope that he might one day be returned. They gathered together at the cemetery, along with numerous townspeople, veterans, and local politicos to witness his homecoming and the final military honors he so richly deserved.
The bright blue sky of a pleasantly cool November day contrasted sharply with the somber scene. Navy pallbearers slowly withdrew the flag-draped casket from the hearse and moved it into position on the bier, then stood respectfully to one side. Family members filled the seats beneath the funeral canopy to capacity. The Methodist minister from Buddy’s home church gave a moving eulogy, assisted by a Navy chaplain. Representatives from the state, county, and town governments, along with the commander of the local American Legion post, spoke in turn. The consistent theme was one of simple thankfulness that Buddy had finally been returned, respect for his family, recognition of the ultimate sacrifice paid in the cause of freedom by a native son, and pride in his patriotic service. His return inevitably recalled the service of those still missing, and the hope that they might some day return to their families as well.
As the service neared its conclusion, the Navy pallbearers quietly stepped forward and lifted the flag from the top of Buddy’s casket. The loud reports of three rifle volleys echoed across the cemetery, followed by the haunting, familiar bugle notes of ‘Taps.’ As the crowd watched silently, the pallbearers carefully folded the flag into a tight triangle, with only the blue canton and its bright white stars showing. A Navy admiral knelt in front of Buddy’s niece Ann Parker, who spearheaded the family’s efforts for his return, presented the folded flag to her, and thanked her on behalf of the President, the Navy, and a grateful nation.
The families of those who are missing in action experience multi-generational trauma. A gaping rent is torn in the family that cannot be mended. Families are left in bereavement limbo without closure as the grieving process is interrupted and drawn out indefinitely. Surviving family members often hang onto hopes that a mistake has been made, and that somehow the missing service member could eventually be found alive. Widowed spouses raise children who are missing a parent. Siblings marry, leave home, and have children of their own. Parents grow old and die, still awaiting the return of their child. The missing become part of family lore, bolstered by carefully preserved pictures, letters, medals, and memorabilia. The passage of time does not fully erase the pain.
Buddy Outland was one of the more than sixteen million Americans who wore their country’s uniform during the Second World War. Until a few months ago, he was numbered among the more than 72,000 who are still missing. Although he was an ordinary young man from an ordinary place, he became part of one of our nation’s most extraordinary historical events. He now rests beside his father and brother in his hometown.
As for the ship he served, USS Oklahoma was righted and raised from the muddy bottom of Pearl Harbor in November 1942 by a team of divers and salvors after a dangerous, months-long Herculean effort. Deemed beyond repair, her huge guns and superstructure were removed. She was decommissioned in September 1944 and sold for scrap. The tugboats Hercules and Monarch were towing her hull across the Pacific Ocean to a San Francisco Bay scrapyard in May 1947 when disaster struck a second time. She entered a storm, capsized, and sank more than 500 miles northeast of Hawaii in 3,000 fathoms of water, nearly taking Hercules with her. The exact cause of her second sinking was never determined. The temporary patches to the torpedo holes may have given way after six years. Some of the men who served on Oklahoma felt that the ship simply preferred to die at sea. Her final resting place is unknown.