DRAPER — When Robert J. Holmes speaks of his uncle, Robert K. Holmes — for whom he was named — there is pride in his voice, along with equal parts respect and admiration for the man he only knew for the first six years of his life.
That's because the elder Robert Holmes left to serve his country, where he died on the “date that will live in infamy,” the notorious raid on Pearl Harbor. The attack led to the United States' entry into World War II.
Now, after more than 76 years of not knowing where the Marine had been laid to rest, his remains have been identified and returned to his family.
Sitting at a table in the dining room of his Draper home, nephew Bob Holmes, 83, recounts some of the times he spent with his beloved uncle — who was also called Bob — and other family members through black-and-white copies of photographs from decades ago. He also has mementoes such as his uncle's various military awards, including his Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal, American Defense Medal and WWII Victory Medal, among others.
One of the family's prized possessions is a copy of the last letter Uncle Bob ever mailed home — along with the envelope that was postmarked Dec. 6, 1941. Though he has just a few vivid memories of his uncle, Holmes recalled he was a man of strength and intensity.
"He had a look in his eye that 'I'm a Holmes boy and also a Marine, so don't mess with me,'" he said.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Marine Corps Pfc. Robert K. Holmes, 19, of Salt Lake City, was assigned to the battleship USS Oklahoma, the nephew explained, which was moored at Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, when the ship was attacked by Japanese aircraft. The USS Oklahoma sustained multiple torpedo strikes causing it to capsize. The assault left 429 crewmen dead, including Holmes.
Several weeks later, the family received notification that Holmes was missing and presumed dead, though his remains were never identified. From December 1941 to June 1944, Navy personnel recovered the remains of the deceased crew, who were subsequently interred in the Halawa and Nuuanu cemeteries in Hawaii, according to a news release.
In September 1947, members of the American Graves Registration Service, assigned to recover and identify U.S. personnel lost in the Pacific Theater, disinterred the remains of American casualties from the two cemeteries and transferred them to the Central Identification Laboratory at Schofield Barracks, the release stated. Initially, the laboratory was only able to positively identify 35 men from the USS Oklahoma. Remains of unidentified personnel were later buried in 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific — known as the Punchbowl — in Honolulu.
Later, in October 1949, a military board classified those who could not be identified as nonrecoverable, including Holmes. For decades, the family heard little from the military and were left wondering whatever happened to their beloved relative.
The nephew Bob Holmes said that over the years as scientific technology improved, the family wondered why DNA testing wasn't able to verify the identity of remains that had been collected. After watching some news reports, he said his brother contacted the U.S. Marine Corps last year and learned of an effort to use new technologies to identify unverified remains of those killed at Pearl Harbor.
After submitting a DNA sample, the brother was able to give the scientists what they needed to compare against samples from remains of previously interred military members.
"They started the (testing) process and (eventually) informed my brother who made the contact with them last summer, that, 'We have identified your uncle's remains definitely through the scientific testing and we want to know if you want him buried in Hawaii or brought home?'" the nephew recounted. "We said we wanted him brought home."
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced Thursday that Holmes' remains, identified and accounted for on May 9, will be returned to his family for burial with full military honors. He will be buried Monday in his Utah hometown.
In April 2015, the deputy secretary of Defense issued a policy memorandum directing the disinterment of unknowns associated with the USS Oklahoma, the release explained. Then, on June 15, 2015, exhumation of the remains from the Punchbowl began for identification.
Officials said scientists from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, along with the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, used mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA analysis, anthropological analysis, and circumstantial evidence to identify Holmes' remains.
The agency reported that of the more than 400,000 military personnel who died during WWII, 72,906 are still unaccounted for. Holmes' name is recorded on the Walls of the Missing at the Punchbowl, along with the others who are missing from WWII, the release stated. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.
Information on the Defense Department's mission to account for Americans who went missing while serving the country can be found at www.dpaa.mil, on social media at facebook.com/dodpaa or by calling 703-699-1420, ext. 1169.
For Bob Holmes, being able to properly memorialize his uncle definitely brings some resolution to a situation that has been troubling for his family for more than 70 years.
"I don't know if you can really mourn somebody from 77 years ago," he said. "But it's been so exciting to the family to finally have Uncle Bob brought home."