Kansas family says final goodbye to sailor who died at Pearl Harbor after Navy uses DNA to identify him
DOUGLASS, Kan. (KAKE) - It took a literal lifetime, more than 80 years, to identify a Kansas sailor and bring him home from Pearl Harbor. Tuesday, his family, finally, was able to say goodbye, including a family member most of his crewmates wouldn't still have to wait for him at home - a living sibling.
A military funeral with full honors finally came for Seaman 2nd Class Floyd F Clifford. He was just 20 years old when he died on December 7, 1941, less than a year after having joined the Navy.
"I think he loved the Navy. He really did. He took to it right away," said his remaining sister, Melba Nowakowski, the only one of his eight siblings still living.
For most of the 82 years, since he died, Clifford has rested in what's known as the Punchbowl, a cemetery in Honolulu, Hawaii, where the Navy buried the unidentified bodies of American sailors from the U.S.S. Oklahoma who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor that launched the U.S. into World War II.
It took DNA technology to finally bring him back to Kansas and a small cemetery outside Douglass, where the Navy buried him Tuesday near his parents.
"I just wished that some more of my siblings or my mother and dad could have been here to know that he's come home," his sister said after the service.
Melba was there for him, though. Almost 90 herself now, she made the trip from Tennessee for this chance to say goodbye.
"It was an overwhelming experience," she said, clutching tightly to the folded U.S. flag that had draped Clifford's coffin during the service. As his closest surviving relative, Rear Adm. Terry Eddinger, Deputy Chief of Chaplains for Reserve Matters, presented that flag to her during the service.
It was Melba's DNA, and that of a grand-niece, that the Navy used to finally identify him. The Navy says it exhumed the bodies of the unknown Oklahoma sailors in 2015. It officially identified Clifford's remains on September 27, 2016.
Once identified, though, Melba said they had some trouble letting her know.
"They couldn't find me," she said, explaining she'd since moved from Colorado to Tennessee. "And my great niece was doing the genealogy of the family and she came to Floyd's (entry). She had nothing she knew that he was joining the Navy. And that's all she had. So she wrote to the POW/MIA people. And they said, 'Well, we've been trying to find Melba for a long time.'"
Clifford is the second Kansan who died in Oklahoma that the U.S. Navy has identified using DNA technology. The first was Fireman 1st Class Walter Belt, laid to rest in Ellsworth in October of 2021.
"Anytime I can support a Kansan's coming home to their final resting place, I'll be here," said Jerry Gardinier.
A Master Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force himself, Gardinier is also Belt's great-nephew. He says he knows exactly what Tuesday's service, from the playing of Taps to the 21 Gun Salute, means to Clifford's family.
"It's emotional. Obviously, when Taps plays, you don't have a dry eye in the place. But it's also a joyous occasion because for 80-something years they have wondered and wondered if they're ever going to find him.," Gardinier said.
Dozens of people, from Clifford's family to members of the Kansas Patriot Guard who escorted Clifford on his final journey, gathered first at a church, then in the cemetery.
"I saw those people at the church, you know," Melba said of all the veterans and active duty service members who came to join her family's last goodbye. "I wondered if something else was going on."
"I'm ex-Navy and I was stationed at Pearl Harbor (in the 1970s)," said Socko Reeder. "It's nice to see one of my brothers finally get to come home, to rest, and to have closure with the families."
The closure is a big part of why the Navy says it's doing the DNA testing that helped them identify Clifford.
"And there's so many. I mean this is World War Two, this is USS Oklahoma. The last funeral I did was for a Vietnam pilot. There are people from Korea," Rear Admiral Eddinger said. "There's still a lot out there that haven't been found, or we're just finding, maybe they've been found but haven't been identified. They really need to go home."
"I shall always be grateful to the U.S. Navy, to the POW/MIA people for their diligence in identifying my brother and allowing this... this wonderful ceremony today to happen," Melba smiled.