By Shawn Chitnis
WHEAT RIDGE, Colo. (CBS4) – A navy sailor killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor was buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery on Friday 77 years later thanks to special DNA testing and the recent identification of his remains by the military.
“I think I’ve been in shock ever since,” said Ted Hummell, the nephew of the sailor. “They don’t give up.”
William Francis Hellstern, 20, was a Navy Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class born in Peoria, Illinois. He was killed in action during the attack on the USS Oklahoma during World War II.
The Navy recovered the remains of the crew for almost three years following the attack on Dec. 7, 1941. By the end of the decade, Hellstern and others were listed as “non-recoverable” by the Navy. More than 2,400 sailors, Marines and soldiers were killed that day.
“Growing up with my mom crying every December 7,” Hummell shared about his mother, the sister of Hellstern. He now lives in Castle Rock.
The Department of Defense directed staff to reexamine those “unknown” remains in 2015. Scientists working for the military used mitochondrial (mtDNA) DNA, circumstantial evidence and dental and anthropological analysis to determine Hellstern’s identity.
“When they said we found him, discovered him, I just started bawling,” said Hummell. “The military says no one left behind, but 77 years, you know you think that’s getting a little ridiculous.”
The military announced it had identified the names of seven crew members from the USS Oklahoma in Nov. 2015. Once Hummell knew about his uncle’s remains, he believed it was best that Hellstern be reunited with his sister.
“See if we can put him with my mom,” Hummell recalled at the funeral. “My mom is with him right now.”
Hellstern received a proper military funeral on Friday morning with family members and friends in attendance. The Patriot Guard served as an escort to the procession. Hummell said he was emotional just listening to those officiating over the service comment on the reunion of these two siblings.
“It’s pretty perfect,” he said. “There were no words, there were no words.”
Seeing this day was a special moment for Hummell and his loved ones because they know others died never knowing if it would ever happen. He told his children about Hellstern and they all learned the story of his life and death as well as the impact it had on the entire family.
“My mom never had closure, my grandpa never had closure,” he said. “77 years later, it finally came around.”
His son called him the day before the funeral to share a lighter moment during a heavy week filled with so many emotions.
“He said, ‘Dad, Grandma is going to be in heaven and she’s probably going to wet her pants,'” Hummell shared after the service.
SHARE YOUR STORY: Share A Together 4 Colorado Story Idea With CBS4
More than 400,000 Americans died during World War II. There are still 72,934 service members that are unaccounted for from the war, according to the Department of Defense. Military officials believe approximately 26,000 could still possibly be recovered.
“You never know if they’re watching or not but I believe they are, the departed,” said Hummell of his mother. “I hope so.”