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Coming home: Pearl Harbor sailor buried in Paducah family plot 81 years later

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WKMS
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Derek Operle

After 82 years away, a Paducah sailor killed at Pearl Harbor was finally laid to rest Friday.

Over 200 people including family members, veterans and officials came to Maplelawn Park Cemetery to see Navy Fireman 2nd Class Hal Jake Allison buried in his family plot alongside his parents – Henry and Opal Moore Allison.

A bagpiper played “My Old Kentucky Home” as Allison’s casket was brought to the family plot, where he received full military honors.

Allison left Paducah to join the U.S. Navy in 1940. He was assigned to the U.S.S. Oklahoma, one of the first ships to be hit by Japanese forces at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. His family was notified by telegram in February 1942 that all attempts to locate him in the wake of the attack were unsuccessful. He was declared dead at 21 and his remains went unidentified for 81 years.

His body was among those identified by the U.S.S. Oklahoma Identification Project, which has tested DNA of surviving family members to identify the remains of hundreds of Pearl Harbor casualties since 2015. Pamela Bottoms, Allison’s niece, submitted her DNA to the project in the hopes it would bring her uncle home. They got the call in October 2021.

“We were just so excited and it’s so wonderful to bring him home to [be] with my grandmother who grieved her son all of [her] life. Every December 7th, she’d go to her bedroom with her Bible and pray that he’d come home somehow,” said Bottoms, who still lives in western Kentucky. “That’s what happens when you don’t have a body. Finally we have a resolution. So now when I go out and put flowers – I do it for every occasion – now he’ll be there.

“We’ve had an empty grave out there for him this entire time. It’s a miracle that he’s home.”

In all, 2,403 U.S. service members and civilians died in Pearl Harbor. Now with Allison back home – 33 others from the USS Oklahoma remain unidentified. They’re buried in a military cemetery in Honolulu.

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WKMS
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Derek Operle
Rear Admiral Gene F. Price speaks with Brenda Lowe -- a niece of Hal Jake Allison, a Paducah man who died in the Pearl Harbor attack in Dec. 1941 -- on the occasion of her uncle being buried Friday.

Navy Rear Admiral Gene Price said that ceremonies like this are rare in that they’re both happy and sad.

“[The sailors at Pearl Harbor] probably figured [the sirens sounded during the attack] were a drill and some of them made it topside, but on the U.S.S. Oklahoma, most of them did not because it was one of the first ships that got hit,” he told WKMS. “So most of these people died not even knowing what was happening, but they’re coming home. And it’s taking a long time, but the Navy is finally getting them back where they belong.”

No one at the service had ever met Allison, but several family and community members showed up to pay respects. Michael Allison, Hal’s nephew, said he didn’t know much about his uncle, but he did remember a bit of family folklore passed down by his father. He said “every Christmas Day uncle Hal used to break the ice – if there was ice – on the Kentucky side of the [Ohio River] and swim to Illinois.” Though Michael never met Hal, he couldn’t be happier he found his way home.

“It’s an honor – that’s what it feels like,” he said. “It’s unbelievable what DNA testing can do… that after 80 years you can find somebody and bring them back home.”

Amateur historian David Heathcott brought the original telegram Allison’s family received notifying them about their missing son and Kathy Peeler brought a box of love letters from Allison to her mother, Irene Mayberry. She hopes the letters bring the family closer to him.

“This is history. The family needs that. These go from 1937 to March 1941. She kept every last one of them in this box,” she said. “If I had not passed them on to people related to Hal when I passed nobody would know who these belong to. Now they do and I hope that it brings to life an era that’s so long ago now.”

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WKMS
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Derek Operle
Kathy Peeler holds a box of love letters written by Hal Jake Allison to her mother, Irene Mayberry. Peeler brought the letters to give to Allison's family in hopes they would help them get to know him.

Heathcott found the telegram in a scrapbook in Weakley County, Tennessee, and by chance came into contact with the Allison family through his work as a museum docent at the Discovery Park of America in Union City, Tennessee.

“My connection is visceral in a way. My uncle was killed in 1944 by a Japanese kamikaze … We knew he wasn’t coming home. I found this and I read that telegram and I imagined my grandfather reading it,” he said. “There’s just something powerful about such things that time doesn’t take the edge off of. I’ve done my best to keep [Hal’s] name alive. I know that my uncle will never come home but, in a way, I guess I’ve adopted Hal [as my uncle].”

For Sandi Reid, Allison’s great niece, the experience of laying him to rest was moving and necessary.

“I think our family was just able to always keep his name alive. It’s important to me. It’s important to my kids. And that’s been passed down from my grandmother that kept his picture up in her entryway my entire life,” Reid said. “I grew up with him always being there in the stories … so we did know him, you know.”

A native of western Kentucky, Operle earned his bachelor's degree in integrated strategic communications from the University of Kentucky in 2014. Operle spent five years working for Paxton Media/The Paducah Sun as a reporter and editor. In addition to his work in the news industry, Operle is a passionate movie lover and concertgoer.
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