Gail Watnos-Stanek always kept her uncle Artie in the back of her mind.
Arthur Thinnes was aboard the USS Oklahoma in Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor when it was attacked on December 7, 1941. He was one of the 429 crew members who lost their lives when the ship was hit by nine Japanese torpedoes and capsized.
“With all the stories that have been passed on, everything my grandmother told me about him and the letters he wrote her, his memory was kept alive,” said Stanek.
As with so many other deceased sailors on the Oklahoma, Thinnes’ remains have never been identified. That is, until that year when DNA testing made it possible not only to identify the Milwaukee native, but to bring him home.
On Friday, almost 80 years after his death, the Seaman 2nd Class was buried in Wood National Cemetery on a clear autumn afternoon. Stanek of Bloomington, Illinois was not medically able to attend, but about two dozen people, along with a host of uniformed workers, were there to pay their respects and watch his flag-draped coffin being brought to the construction site and listened as guns were shot fired in his honor.
On his 17th birthday, January 8, 1941, Thinnes registered as a seaman without the knowledge of his mother, Stanek’s grandmother.
“My grandfather took it off, signed it, they came home to my grandmother’s, and my grandmother didn’t speak to my grandfather for two months,” she said. “He wasn’t even a year in the Navy and was an MIA. At 17 he was still a baby. ”
For nearly three years, the remains of the deceased sailors were interred aboard the USS Oklahoma in two cemeteries in Hawaii. Then, in 1947, they were transferred to an identification laboratory in Honolulu. The lab could only identify 35; the rest, including Thinnes, were declared “unrecoverable”.
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That changed in 2015. Thinnes was identified this summer using dental, anthropological and DNA analyzes and with the help of Stanek.
Stanek said Thinnes and her mother are inseparable; her mother followed him like a “little ant”.
“She was his best friend while he was growing up,” she said. “She was a tomboy so he let her play baseball with all of his friends, climb trees, and they were just best friends.”
For years, Stanek’s grandmother has put up a Christmas tree every December 6th, in the hope that her “baby boy” will come home safe and sound.
“She was sure that the next day, December 7th, there would be a knock on her door and it would be my uncle who had woken up from the amnesia of the bombs, or that a family in Hawaii had taken him in and looked after him . ” he is well again or he was so burned in the bombing that he initially had no fingerprints that could identify him, “she said.
Thinnes’ name remains on the walls of the missing at the Punchbowl Memorial in Hawaii, according to the Department of Defense. But now a rosette is placed next to his name to indicate that he has been held accountable.
That, and the knowledge that his remains came home on Friday, gives his niece a degree.
“For me he was a real person,” said Stanek.