- Associated Press - Monday, October 23, 2017

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Pvt. Vernon Keaton has spent the last seven decades in a grave in Honolulu. Next month, he will be buried in an Oklahoma cemetery.

Keaton, a U.S. Marine whose body sank with the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor, will be buried in the state just weeks shy of the 76th anniversary of his death, The Oklahoman reported.

Keaton’s graveside service is set for Nov. 16 in Lula, an unincorporated community southeast of Ada in Pontotoc County.

In April 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense announced its plans to exhume the remains of nearly 400 sailors and Marines who died when the USS Oklahoma was sunk on Dec. 7, 1941, in the attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, according to a news release.

The ship remained under water for two years before it was righted and salvaged. A total of 429 military members were killed, but few were positively identified that decade, according to the release.

But the MIA/POW Accounting Agency contacted D.J. Gentry two years prior. Keaton was Gentry’s mother’s cousin, and the agency was seeking the mitochondrial DNA of her and her sister to identify his remains.

“I was very skeptical,” Gentry said. “Some days, I’ll give you my checkbook before I give you my DNA.”

Last month, representatives met with Gentry and other family members, confirming that Keaton’s remains had been matched to a casket containing the remains of about 90 soldiers, she said.

Gentry was not Keaton’s closest living relative. Keaton had joined the Marines at 18 and had no children. His parents both died in the 1960s. His niece, Sandra Sue Lewis, would be the one to make the call.

Lewis, now 78, was 2 years old when her uncle was killed and doesn’t remember him. Nobody in the family even knew Keaton’s remains existed, Gentry said. Gentry waited about two years after being contacted by the accounting agency before contacting Lewis.

“I didn’t even know if she was alive, but I felt it was her place,” Gentry said. “But I wanted to make sure, because sometimes that can stir a lot of emotion. She was very excited. Like me, we still couldn’t believe that after 76 years, this was really going to happen.”

The agency gave the family two choices: Keaton could be buried in the continental U.S. or be cremated and his ashes spread over Hawaii.

Keaton’s family chose to have him buried in Oklahoma.

Keaton was from Lubbock, Texas, but his remaining family lives in the state, Gentry said.

A few days before his remains are buried, an Air Force sergeant will fly to Hawaii to escort his remains home. There will be military ceremonies when his remains are placed on the plane and again when he arrives at Will Rogers World Airport.

“The neatest part of this is that they are going to lay his bones out in what would have been their anatomical position inside the coffin with a blue uniform on top,” Gentry said.

Gentry said Keaton’s graveside service will be public.

“Any veteran or veterans group that wants to attend will be more than welcome. This is not just for the family. This is for the veterans, because we want to honor them,” Gentry said.

“I think my aunt would be very pleased that we’re doing this,” she said.

Services for U.S. Marine Pvt. Vernon Keaton, 18, will be at 2 p.m. Nov. 16 at Lula Cemetery.


Information from: The Oklahoman, https://www.newsok.com

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