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April 15, 2018 10:23 PM

Coming Home

It's a homecoming long overdue.

A United States sailor, who was killed when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor back in 1941, has finally been identified. 

After all these years he has now been brought back to his hometown of Lake Preston where he was greeted by many, including one special person he never got a chance to meet.

They came from all over; veterans, politicians and plain old citizens. 

They filed into the Lake Preston High School gymnasium for the funeral of Navy Petty Officer Porter Rich, to pay their final respects and honor a man most of them never met. That includes his own family.

"I grew up thinking he was at the bottom of the ocean that the ship was still there as misinformed as I was, that's what I thought," niece 
Mary Hauck said.

"As we were growing up our dad would tell us bits and pieces, but we really didn't get any sense of any more than that, so we really didn't know the man or who he was and what his life was. Because no one who's around here today really knew the man personally, so we just had to take this and piece this together as to who this man was from what we could gather," nephew Curtis Rich said. 

Pictures and handwritten letters help tell the story of the uncle they never knew.
Porter Rich died during the attack on Pearl Harbor at the age of 27. He was one of 429 sailors who lost his life aboard the USS Oklahoma after it was hit nine times by torpedoes and sunk.

In the days that followed, only 35 sailors were immediately recovered from carnage and identified.  

The rest remained in the watery grave below.

"In the very beginning when they brought the sailors up a couple of years after the Pearl Harbor attack, they didn't have the capabilities that they have today to identify," Navy Public Affairs Officer CMDR Tom Porter said.

So, the remains of the sailors were buried in 46 mass graves in the National Cemetery in Hawaii, including Porter Rich. 

KELOLAND News recently traveled to Hawaii and toured the hallow grounds around Pearl Harbor and the National Cemetery where Porter's remains were exhumed. It was an emotional scene, one filled with heartache and hope.

"Just recently in 2015, the Secretary of Defense made a determination to bring up the remains to try to start identifying them and they've been doing that over the last couple of years," Porter said.

Last year, the family had heard reports the Navy had identified some of the sailors who were in the boiler room at the time of the attack. That gave them a glimmer of hope.

"I knew Porter was in the boiler room at the time I said 'There might be a possibility they're going to get him identified,' and it was two weeks later we got a phone call that they had identified his body and they were going to go with this and it was based on DNA they now have, so that's what made it possible," Curtis said.

Family and friends never thought they'd see this day.
"I just didn't think it would be possible," Hauck said.

Pictures, letters from Porter, and even his diary kept his memory alive in Lake Preston. 

"And we read that it really gave us some insight from the time he was born and through his school years, his teachers and how well he did in school and the troubles he got into, and how his parents reacted, it just chronicilized his life and that was all news to us," Curtis said.

It was also new to a 76 year old man, who came all the way from Mesa, Arizona just to be there.

"I never really knew him, so the only thing my mother really told me about my father was he was wonderful," Ron Rich said.

You heard right, he said his father.

This is Ron Rich, the only son Porter ever had. Sadly he never got a chance to meet him, because Ron was born six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. This rare photo shows a young Ron Rich wearing his dad's Purple Heart.

The trip back here helps bring closure finally 77 years later, but it also leaves him feeling empty.

"I really don't know how to explain it, I really can't explain my feelings, there aren't words to describe it. There were a lot of periods in my life when I was sad, because I never got to know him," Ron said.

Ron says he feels like he missed out on a lot of things fathers and sons typically get to do together. Plus he thinks his dad would have been a great role model.
"I do, I'm sure he would have been a wonderful father, that's what war takes away from you," Ron said. 

But it couldn't take away the family's feeling of pride and respect; especially on this day. 

"These wide shoulders of our greatest generation are what we stand on today. This hero comes home after decades from losing his life but is welcomed home by his family by his community by his state and by past, present and future veterans..." Hauck said. 

"I feel we are now going to put to rest an uncle we now know I never knew the man before... It’s good, it's a good man, it's really good it's happening," Rich said.

Lake Preston's American Legion is named after Porter. 

So far the Navy has identified 100 of the other sailors, giving families across the country the closure they've been waiting for.


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