Navy sailor killed in Pearl Harbor to be reinterred in Batavia

Walt Pickens remembers being told years ago government officials were trying to identify his uncle among the hundreds of USS Oklahoma crewmen killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He remembers the U.S. Navy contacting his mother and asking for a DNA sample.

But he never fathomed that, after more than seven decades of being buried as an unknown sailor, Walter H. Backman would return home.

Pickens' family was notified in August that Backman's remains had been identified. The 22-year-old Navy radio man will be reinterred with full military honors on Memorial Day at River Hills Memorial Park in Batavia - the same cemetery where his parents are buried.

"The military's promise is that they'll leave no man or woman behind," Pickens said. "It's amazing to see the fruit of that."

Pickens, an Aurora native who now lives in Georgia, never knew his uncle. His mother and grandmother - Backman's sister and mom - didn't talk about him in great detail. Pickens imagined it was too painful for them to relive their loss.

Still, Pickens said he has been able to weave together information through the years that paints his namesake as well-mannered, fun-loving and hardworking.

This photo of Walter H. Backman as a toddler is one of the few photos Walt Pickens has off his uncle, who was killed in the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. Courtesy of Walt Pickens

Backman, who grew up in North Dakota, quit school after eighth grade to work on his family's farm, Pickens said. His family moved to Aurora in the 1930s after losing the farm to the Great Depression and severe dust storms.

Backman enlisted in the Navy in 1938 and spent three years aboard the USS Oklahoma, records show. He took his work seriously and often traded his shore leave with other sailors, Pickens recalled from conversations with his mother.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Backman was on duty in the radio room when the ship was hit with torpedoes and capsized, Pickens said. He was one of 429 crewmen who died.

In the three years after the attack, Navy personnel recovered the remains of the sailors trapped in the ship, but only 35 were identified. Those who were unknown were buried together at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The wreckage of the USS Oklahoma leaves Pearl Harbor on Nov. 27, 1944, in Hawaii. It was sunk in the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack. Walter H. Backman, right, was on the crew of the Oklahoma, but not until last summer were his remains identified so he could be reinterred in Batavia. Associated Press

When Backman was determined to have been killed in action, a River Hills cemetery plot was donated to his mother and father in his memory, Pickens said. "God didn't make parents to bury their kids," he said. "(My grandparents) never even had the opportunity to do that."

About three years ago, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and the Department of Veterans Affairs exhumed all the unknown remains from the USS Oklahoma and began a "lengthy identification process" using DNA methods, according to the agency. As of December, 100 sailors - including Backman - had been identified.

Walt Pickens, an Aurora native living in Georgia, says he was told in August the remains of his uncle, Walter H. Backman, had been identified. Courtesy of Walt Pickens

"It was quite a surprise," Pickens said. "I just wish my mom and my aunt and grandma had been able to live long enough to see this day come. It would've given them closure. They were never really able to get that."

Pickens said he's heard from several of Backman's relatives from across the country who plan to attend the May 28 memorial service, which begins with a prayer service at 1 p.m. at The Healy Chapel, 332 W. Downer Place, Aurora.

A memorial procession will take place at 1:30 p.m., leading to a 2 p.m. graveside service with full military honors at River Hills, 1650 S. River St., Batavia. Rear Adm. Carol Lynch will preside over the service, which also includes a seven-member detail.

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