It started with a DNA sample. Ted Hummell never knew his uncle William Hellstern, but he had heard about him all his life from his mother, Jeanne. William Francis Hellstern was one of over 2,400 Americans who lost their lives on December 7th, 1941 when the Imperial Japanese Navy launched an aerial attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. Serving aboard USS Oklahoma (BB-37), Hellstern was killed along with hundreds of his shipmates, and like many of them, his remains would lie unidentified for decades.
“Missing” for Seven Decades
The Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class never made it off Oklahoma when she capsized and sank to the bottom of the harbor. He and 428 of his fellow crewmen were casualties of one of the most tragic events in American history, but the tragedy struck harder when the remains of more than 300 of those men couldn’t be identified. Family members, like William’s sister Jeanne, waited for the letter that said their loved one had been killed in action, but as Hummell recalls, his mother never received even that closure. Instead, in February of 1942, the Navy issued a letter stating that, despite an exhaustive search, the remains of William Hellstern couldn’t be located. He was listed as missing in action, and his name was later added to the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
The tragic reality was that many of the bodies recovered from USS Oklahoma were too damaged to be identified. Those remains were eventually buried together in graves marked “Unknown.” Fast-forward more than 70 years, when the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency stepped in with a plan to exhume those unidentified remains and match them to surviving relatives. Over the course of five years, the agency hopes to reveal the identity of every Oklahoma sailor.
A DNA Match Finally IDs William Hellstern
When the agency contacted Hummell, he offered his DNA and also a sample of his mother’s hair. The process began in 2015, and recently, thanks to the efforts of the DPAA, the 20-year-old sailor from the USS Oklahoma was finally identified and returned to his relatives. In May of 2018, William Hellstern was finally given the proper burial that was robbed from him seven decades earlier.
As Ted Hummell put it, “It’s not really a sad funeral to me. You know, it’s a celebration…a tribute – that they found him.” William Hellstern is one of more than a hundred whose remains have made the trip home from the Pacific. Each burial provides a sense of closure for a family that’s spent more than 70 years remembering the sacrifice their ancestor made on that fateful day.