Gail Watnos-Stanek has always kept her uncle Artie in mind.
Arthur Thinnes was aboard the USS Oklahoma in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii when it was attacked on December 7, 1941. He was one of 429 crew members who lost their lives when the ship was hit by nine Japanese torpedoes. and capsized.
âWith all the stories that have been passed down, everything my grandmother told me about her and the letters he wrote to her kept her memory alive,â Stanek said.
Like so many other sailors who died on Oklahoma, Thinnes’ remains have never been identified. That is, until this year, when DNA testing not only identified the Milwaukee native, but also brought him home.
On Friday, nearly 80 years after his death, the Ordinary Seaman was laid to rest on a cool fall afternoon at Wood National Cemetery. Stanek, of Bloomington, Ill., Was medically unable to attend, but about two dozen people, along with a host of uniformed personnel, were there to pay their respects, watch his flag-draped casket being brought to the site and listen to the guns being fired in his honor.
Thinnes enlisted as a sailor on his 17th birthday, January 8, 1941, unbeknownst to his mother, Stanek’s grandmother.
âMy grandfather took it off, wrote it down, they went back to my grandmother’s and my grandmother didn’t speak to my grandfather for two months,â she said. âHe wasn’t even in the Navy for a year and was MIA. He was just a baby at 17.
For nearly three years, the remains of sailors who died aboard the USS Oklahoma were interred in two cemeteries in Hawaii. Then, in 1947, they were transferred to an identification lab in Honolulu. The laboratory was only able to identify 35; the others, including Thinnes, were declared “irrecoverable”.
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That changed in 2015. Using dental, anthropological, and DNA analysis, and with help from Stanek, Thinnes was identified this summer.
Stanek said Thinnes and his mother were inseparable; his mother followed him everywhere like a “little ant”.
âShe was his best friend, throughout her childhood,â she said. “She was a tomboy, so he let her play baseball with all of her friends, climb trees, and they were just best friends.”
For years, Stanek’s grandmother has planted a Christmas tree every year on December 6, in the hopes that her “little boy” will come home safe and sound in her arms.
âShe was sure that the next day, December 7, there would be a knock on her door and it would be my uncle who had woken up from amnesia from the bombs, or that a family in Hawaii had taken him in and cared for him. brought him back to health, or that he had been burned so badly in the bombing that he would not have fingerprints that could identify him at first, âshe said.
Thinnes’ name remains on the walls of the missing at the Punchbowl Memorial in Hawaii, according to the Department of Defense. But now a rosette will be placed next to its name to indicate that it has been considered.
That, and the knowledge that his remains returned home on Friday, gives his niece closure.
âFor me, he was a real person,â Stanek said.