Remains of sailor killed in Pearl Harbor returned for burial in Illinois hometown

BATAVIA, Ill. -- This Memorial Day brought closure to the family of a fallen sailor who was finally laid to rest decades after he was killed in the WWII attack on Pearl Harbor.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Walter Howard Backman was 22 when Japanese torpedoes struck the U.S.S. Oklahoma in 1941. While 429 sailors and marines on the Oklahoma were killed, 388 of them were never identified, including Backman.

“It wasn’t until springtime of ’43 — maybe 18 months later — before they up-righted the ship, and it was at that time that they went in and recovered the remains of the fallen," Backman's nephew Walt Pickens said. “They just went into common graves, identified as unknowns from the U.S.S. Oklahoma."

Backman's remains were finally identified three years ago, after they were exhumed from the National Memorial Cemetery in Hawaii and DNA testing was done as part of a Department of Defense initiative.

“God is amazing in how he answers our prayers, even if we have to wait 77 years to have them answered,” Backman's niece Carolyn Sellers said.

Decades after his death, Backman's remains were sent home to Illinois so he could be reinterred with full military honors. Navy personnel, the Illinois State Police and the Illinois Patriot Guard escorted his remains from O'Hare International Airport to a funeral home in Aurora on Saturday.

Then family, friends, soldiers and strangers gathered to give him the farewell he never received, and bury him in River Hills Memorial Park, where his parents are buried as well. Coming from Florida, Backman’s niece Carolyn Sellers said she knew the day would bring closure. She didn’t realize it would also bring a flood of emotion.

“That brings tears; it does bring tears, even though I never knew Walter. My mother cried every December 7 because she remembered,” Sellers said.

The words of "Amazing Grace" echoed through the chapel near as Backman was laid to rest Monday: “I once was lost, but now I’m found.”

“He’s home,” Walt Pickens said.