After more than 75 years, an Evansville sailor killed at Pearl Harbor is returning home for burial near his father.
George James Wilcox was 19 on Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He perished with more than 400 others when a torpedo sank his ship – the USS Oklahoma. The Navy at the time had no way of identifying his remains, so Wilcox was buried in a mass grave with nearly 400 others.
“My dad spoke of him very little,” George’s nephew, David Wilcox, said Tuesday. “All we knew was he died in Pearl Harbor.”
That all changed this year when, using modern DNA testing, the Department of Defense identified Wilcox’s remains.
Though there is no one left alive who knew George Wilcox, his family is eagerly awaiting his homecoming.
“Every family member should be back with their family, no matter how long it’s been,” David Wilcox said.
After George’s remains were identified, his family tried to learned everything they could about their uncle’s short life.
What they discovered was a life filled with hardship.
George was born in 1922 in Byram, Mississippi, the oldest of three children. When he was 5 his mother died. His father, George Wilcox, Sr., could not care for the children without her. So he took them at the St. Vincent Orphanage in Vincennes, Indiana.
“My grandpa couldn’t afford to keep them, so he gave them up,” David Wilcox said. “The era they lived in, life was hard.”
George Wilcox, Sr. moved in with family members in Evansville, and likely stayed in contact with his children.
His two sons spent part of their childhoods in the orphanage, and the other part working as farm hands for local families who took in orphans to work, David Wilcox said.
“He was never adopted, it was more like he was borrowed to do farm work,” David Wilcox said. “George and his brother were not together, but I think he was also a farm hand somewhere.”
Since George was never adopted, when he turned 17 he asked his father’s permission to join the Navy. That was in August 1940, according to an article about Wilcox’s death that was published in the May 5, 1942 issue of The Evansville Courier.
George was assigned to the USS Oklahoma and spent a year at Pearl Harbor before the attack.
It’s impossible to know where aboard the ship George was when the Japanese attacked.
“We only have a list of people who were killed on the ship, nothing about where they were,” said Sgt. 1st Class Kristen Duus, a spokeswoman for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
The USS Oklahoma capsized after it was torpedoed by the Japanese. Hundreds were trapped beneath the ship.
It took two and a half years for the Navy to recover all their remains, and by then the bodies were unidentifiable, Duus said.
By 1947, 388 men from the USS Oklahoma were buried in 61 caskets in Hawaii.
The bodies remained undisturbed until 2003 when the Department of Defense exhumed a single casket in an effort to identify several servicemen based on historical evidence.
The casket contained the remains of nearly 100 men.
So, in 2013, the DOD announced plans to exhume the remaining 60 caskets.
“We spent the first year just doing inventory,” Duus said.
So far, the DOD has identified the remains of 100 of the 388 bodies, by comparing their DNA to living family members.
Once identified, the bodies are returned to their hometowns for reburial, with full military honors.
George Wilcox will return this way in early December. His family is hosting a funeral for him Dec. 16 at Browing Funeral Home, after which he will be buried at St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery, near the grave of his father.
“We want to have him back,” David Wilcox said. “It’s important that he be back with his family, and be loved.”
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