After 77 years, Joe Maule has returned home.
The 17-year-old farm boy from Bloomfield, Neb., enlisted in the U.S. Navy Jan. 6, 1941. He saw it as a chance to serve his country and to explore the world.
Later that year, he was among 429 sailors and Marines on the USS Oklahoma who died in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Altogether, 2,408 souls perished that day in what was the largest attack on U.S. soil.
In May 1941, he joined the USS Oklahoma crew. A prolific writer, he sent home numerous letters describing his joy at spending a few months in San Francisco while his ship was on dry dock for maintenance work.
Now, Joe was writing letters home about his experiences and waiting to ship out to sea.
"Here was a wide-eyed 17 year old son of Bloomfield, Nebraska, with hopes and dreams of seeing the world," said grand-nephew Joshua Vlastimil Maule.
One of Joe’s letters home in September 1941 spoke of his departure for Hawaii, which wasn’t even a state at the time.
His station: Pearl Harbor.
Maule was first listed as missing and then killed in action, but his remains were never identified. For decades, generations of his family prayed for his safe return and burial next to his parents.
"In fact, this was a hope and dream that his parents, along with their surviving children, shared their entire lives," Joshua said. "Joe was the youngest son, and he was never forgotten. But one by one, the family members passed away. Two generations that held tight to the dream of bringing Uncle Joe home are now gone."
On Thursday, the family’s prayers were answered. Thanks to advances in DNA testing, Joe’s remains were identified and returned to Bloomfield for burial.
"Welcome home, Uncle Joe," Joshua Maule said during his eulogy.
Joe Maule was welcomed home by more than his family. An estimated 50 to 100 members of the Legion Riders — comprised of American Legion members who ride motorcycles — escorted the hearse on the hour-long ride from Norfolk, Nebraska, to Bloomfield.
Once arriving in Bloomfield, the procession was greeted by well-wishers of all ages who lined the street with American flags. Bloomfield Legion Rider member Joe Skrivan worked with the arrangements.
As the procession reached the west end of town, it slowly turned into the Bloomfield cemetery and wound its way to the grave site at the top of the hill.
Legion Rider Neil Olson lives in Niobrara, Nebraska, but belongs to the Bloomfield chapter that includes several communities. He was directing traffic arriving at the cemetery for the ceremony.
Olson said he served during the Vietnam War, but not in the war zone, and his father served in Okinawa during World War II.
"My family has never experienced anything like this (77-year absence)," he said. "I’m sure it’s good to have closure."
OFFERING A REFLECTION
At the funeral service, prayers and a reflection were offered by the Rev. Kizito Okhuoya of St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church in Verdigre and St. William Catholic Church of Niobrara, Neb.
After the Pearl Harbor attacks, the Maule family received the feared visit to their home, delivering the news that all military families dreaded during wartime.
For the Maules, the visit provided a sense of uncertainty. Because Joe’s remains weren’t identified, they didn’t know for sure whether he was truly7 dead. And if he was, they had no closure or the opportunity to bring him home as his final resting place.
"In the year that followed, every day they waited to hear some good news. They held some flicker of hope about their son," Okhuoya said.
"As people of faith and as people of hope, they prayed all those years, hoping that their son, Joseph, would come back home. Although (those previous generations) are not with us today, all of their prayers have been answered."
Joe’s return home provided a time of gratefulness for both God and science, the priest said.
"We look and say, ‘Wow! Look at the work of the scientist!’ But we also say, ‘Wow! Look at the work of God!" he said.
"We praise God for those who never gave up. We praise God for those people who, for years, were making sure (the military) would identify these individuals. I think the parents of Joseph would be pleased that their son would be identified as an individual."
Joe and other service members were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, Okhuoya said.
"They answered at a time when the country needed their service and went (into war). They didn’t know what would happen, but they did it out of love — out of love for this country, for the nation, and out of love because of all that was happening at that time," he said.
"These young men, most of them like Joseph, were willing to sacrifice their life for a greater ideal — the ideal of freedom, the ideal of justice and truth, the ideals that we all embrace as American citizens."
The Maule family always held hope Joe would return home, the priest said.
"Joseph didn’t return while they were alive, but their prayers were answered on God’s own time," he said.
Okhyoua used the Biblical passage that, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and grows, it remains just a grain of wheat.
"Can you imagine, because of Joseph and the many other young people like him, who gave their lives, so much greatness has happened in the lives of Americans because of the sacrifices of people like Joseph?" he asked.
"So many people have joined the armed services and served this country so dearly because of those ideals that Joseph died for. Because of Joseph and his colleagues, look at all of us, gathered here today. We cannot imagine how this young man has inspired us through his courage."
At the age of 17, Joe Maule was patriotic and selfless at a time when he could have done something else with his life, the priest said.
Joe also showed a tremendous strength and faith in God, even during the enemy attack at Pearl Harbor, the priest added.
"Even though we do not know what they were doing during those last moments, they were not just with each other, but God was with them," he said. "God knows what happened, and God would take care of them. And God has now rewarded Joseph with the gift of eternal life."
During his eulogy, Joshua Maule noted the family’s dedication to honoring Joe and bringing him to his final resting place.
"Joe’s memory has been kept alive for years by his parents and his loving siblings. All passed down their memories and love for Joe to his nieces and nephews and even his great-nieces and great-nephews," Joshua said. "We remain tasked with keeping Joe’s memory alive, if not every day, then every December 7 of every year that follows."
Joshua Maule said he was struck by the large crowd that attended the funeral.
"As I look around, I’m humbled by the many people joining us today to honor Joe," he said. "I’m sure that Joe’s memory will live on with his family and with Bloomfield and beyond for generations."
Afterwards, family members spoke of feeling a sense of peace, not only for themselves but for the generations who passed away without ever seeing Joe Maule return home.
The family members who have passed away include parents Anton and Ellen Maule and siblings Donald Maule, Vlastimil Maule, Antoinette Drobney, Bonnie Ellis and Elizabeth Cull.
Joe’s death was particularly haunting for Vlastimil, who was three years older and signed the papers allowing Joe to serve in the military at such a young age, said a younger Joe Maule who was named after his ancestor.
Vlastimil grieved for a long time because of Joe’s death, the younger Joe Maule said.
Around 2014, the Navy contacted the Maule family and collected DNA from nephew Joe Maule and nieces Jane Mattern and Judy Drobney-Taylor. Joe’s remains were sent to Omaha and finally identified last year.
In 2015, the Navy began the task of identifying more than 2,400 souls who were buried in the "Punch Bowl" of Hawaii.
The remains were taken to two Navy labs, one in Hawaii and one in Omaha, Nebraska. By chance, Joe’s remains were sent to Omaha; he has been close to home ever since.
At Thursday’s funeral, family members spoke of the third generation’s desire to keep Joe’s memory alive and bring him home for his final resting place.
"This process has been going on for a long time. We never really believed it would happen," said the younger Joe Maule. "But when we got here (to Bloomfield), we realized it was real. Finally, we knew that Joe was coming home."
During the funeral, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Linnea Sommer-Weddington presented the U.S. flag to family members.
Afterwards, she told the Press & Dakotan that Thursday marked her 10th funeral for a returned World War II veteran, with nine of them from the USS Oklahoma.
"Every family and observance has been a little bit different. This has been the smallest community but the largest turnout we have seen," she said.
"You hear stories about the families who have waited for so many years, and now you’re restoring that family. Today, it just gave me chills."
No matter how long it takes, the funeral of a returned sailor holds great meaning, she said.
"We’re celebrating closure for the family, but this is also the celebration of a life well lived," she said. "It’s a real honor to be part of it."
Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.