BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (WBRC) – On a sunny summer Tuesday afternoon, around 20 members of the Ralph Curtis Battles family gathered outside a southwest gate at Birmingham Shuttlesworth International Airport, waiting for a moment of near 80 years old.
Battles was 25, enlisted in the Navy, and was serving as a second-class firefighter on the USS Oklahoma when it was attacked on December 7, 1941, becoming one of the first casualties of World War II.
Since then, his family has hoped and prayed that his remains will finally make it home. Tuesday, it finally happened.
His nephew Ralph Shell bursts into tears while waiting for the plane.
“Today… we’re here to welcome him home,” Shell said, fighting back tears. “This is what our family has always wanted and it is just a testament to our military and the country we live in that they would do it again after 80 years.”
The USS Oklahoma sank minutes after being hit by nine torpedoes in the attack on Pearl Harbor. 429 sailors and marines on board were killed. Battles’ family say he was among 388 men whose bodies remained in the ship’s hull on the ocean floor for 18 months after the attack.
Their remains were eventually transferred to a cemetery in Hawaii, but most were not identified.
For decades, the Battles family continued to hope that one day they could provide him with a proper funeral and say goodbye to him.
“My grandparents always reserved a place for him in the family cemetery in Boaz with a gravestone and a stone at the foot,” explains Shell. “My mother mourned her brother for the rest of her life. “
In 2015, the US Navy removed the remains and began DNA testing in an attempt to return the bodies to their loved ones. Shell says that in April the US Navy called him, saying they had identified his uncle.
“We can place his remains with the rest of the family in Boaz,” Shell says with a smile. He says the Navy has now identified more than 340 of those unidentified Sailors and Marines who were serving aboard the USS Oklahoma with him that day.
“My mother would be brought up. I remember my mom saying she wished they could take him home. he said, fighting back tears. “He died in the service of this country which is still the greatest country on this planet, and I think he would be proud.”
A funeral service will be held on Saturday, August 28, 2021 at 1 p.m. at Hillcrest Cemetery, with full military honors provided by the United States Navy.
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