Port Huron – — Local folks are planning a big welcome Saturday for someone they never met.
Law enforcement agencies are vying to escort Freddie Jones from the airport. Veteran groups want to be part of a ceremony celebrating his life. Average Joes want to attend the homecoming.
The reason none of them know Jones? He died in 1941. He was a Navy machinist killed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
He had wallowed in obscurity ever since, buried in a mass grave of unknown servicemen in Hawaii. People who knew him passed away. Dwindling relatives didn’t know he had been part of history.
But forensic anthropologists exhumed and began inspecting the remains of Jones and other unknown sailors in 2015. They confirmed his identity through DNA from distant relatives in Michigan. And those same relatives will bury him Saturday on a family plot in Port Huron.
After 75 years, Jones is coming home.
“It’s been a long time,” said Sue Nichols of Burton, who is Jones’ great-niece. “It’s just wonderful.”
The police, vets and residents — strangers all — are nearly as excited as Jones’ kin to pay their respects.
Ann Savage of Taylor will make an hour-long drive to be there. She wants to honor Jones, a stranger, and her late grandfather, who fought in World War II.
“He gave the ultimate sacrifice,” she said. “He needs to be remembered.”
Not even Jones’ family know much about him.
His daughter, Leilani Ronningen, was 2 when he died. Her mom remarried and never talked much about him, said Ronningen, 78, who lives in Seattle. Jones also had a son, who passed away.
So relatives try to piece together a life with scraps collected through the years, a press clipping here, a military document there.
The career sailor fittingly grew up in a rural area known for its lakes. His hometown northeast of Flint was named after the body of water it bordered — Otter Lake.
He may have lied about his age when he enlisted on April Fools’ Day in 1929. He told the Navy he was 18, according to his military service record. But, after the Pearl Harbor attack, his dad told the local paper he had been 17.
He served in the Navy the next dozen years, sailing all over the world, his dad, Felix, told the paper. He was transferred to the USS Oklahoma two years before it was attacked in Hawaii.
Jones, a machinist’s mate, was 30 when he died.
The only other mementos are two photos of Jones in uniform, one he had sent to a sister and one to his wife, Helen.
“To my Darling Wife, Love, Freddie,” he scrawled on the undated picture.
Lost after death
The Oklahoma was one of eight battleships damaged during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Five torpedoes from Japanese planes slammed into its hull, capsizing the ship within 10 minutes.
Jones was among hundreds of men trapped below deck. The attack killed 429 men on the ship, and 2,400 servicemen altogether. It catapulted the U.S. into World War II, where, over the next four years, 400,000 more Americans would die.
After a day of infamy, Jones slipped into anonymity.
The war slowed the recovery of the bodies, which were too decomposed to be identified by the time they were retrieved up to two years later.
Before the remains were buried in two Hawaii cemeteries, salvage crews had inexplicably sorted them by body parts, grouping skulls with skulls, arm bones with arm bones, etc., said Department of Defense officials.
“I don’t understand why they would do that,” said Paul Rossler, a POW advocate who was part of an effort to convince the government to identify the remains.
After the war ended, the remains were exhumed and examined by a military lab in 1947. Technicians identified 35 men but balked at doing more, saying they weren’t sure they could be 100 percent accurate, said Pentagon officials.
Jones and the other unknown servicemen were reburied in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, nicknamed the Punchbowl because of its location in the crater of an extinct volcano in Honolulu.
After decades of lobbying by veterans groups, the Pentagon began another attempt to identify the remains in 2015. Among the 61 caskets it exhumed was one that held the remains of 100 servicemen.
Forensic anthropologist reassembled the skeletons and extracted DNA from the skulls and teeth. They used genealogical records to find descendants of the servicemen, and matched DNA samples from the relatives to the servicemen’s.
Sixty-three of the unknown sailors and Marines have been identified, according to Pentagon records. The process is expected to take three years.
‘It just took some time’
After Jones arrived Friday at Detroit Metro Airport, his flag-draped casket was escorted to a Port Huron funeral home by the Michigan State Police and motorcyclists from Rolling Thunder, a POW advocacy group.
On Saturday, the trip to Lakeside Cemetery will be accompanied by the MSP, Port Huron Police and the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office and another motorcycle contingent, this one from an American Legion post in Marysville.
Residents planning to line the procession route will be given American flags by Karrer-Simpson Funeral Home.
“Everyone in the community seems real interested in seeing the service or being part of it,” said Tom Simpson, manager of the funeral home.
During the graveside service, which is nine days before Memorial Day, a Navy chaplain will officiate, a bugler will play taps and an honor guard will give a 21-gun salute. At the end, the flag will be presented to Jones’ granddaughter, Helen Cosner, who will fly in from Seattle.
“I’m glad he’s going to finally be honored,” said Cosner. “It just took some time.”
For Jones, it was a circuitous journey.
First entombed in the oily waters of Pearl Harbor, then a mass grave, then another, he will finally be laid to rest with family. Among those in the cemetery plot are his sister, Neta Amis.
When Nichols’ grandfather bought the plot in 1926, he had enough space for a dozen graves, said Nichols. All but one spot had been taken. It was as if the family had been waiting for Jones all these years.