By Adelle Whitefoot, Duluth News Tribune
On Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. Virginia resident Dante Sylvester Tini was 19 years old and serving as a radioman on the USS Oklahoma when torpedoes ripped through the hull of the ship.
It wasn't until Dec. 20, 1941 that Tini's mother and father received a telegram saying he was missing in action, and the whole neighborhood could hear his mother scream.
Tini had been scheduled to go on leave Dec. 10 and then he was going to be reassigned. Tragically, Tini and 428 other sailors perished that day. Now 77 years later, Tini's remains will return home to his family in Virginia.
In 2012, Tini's niece, Barb Maki, of Virginia, received a phone call from the U.S. Navy asking for a sample of her DNA with the hope of identifying the remains of her uncle. Of course, Maki was suspicious of the call at first.
"You don't always believe the calls you get, so I said 'Please give me your number and somebody I can call so I can make sure that this is official because I've been getting many calls that aren't,'" Maki said.
• Duluth News Tribune: See a video interview of Tini's relatives and more
Once she confirmed the call was legitimate, Maki and her older sister Rachel Bauer gave their DNA to be compared to remains that were disinterred from a mass grave in Honolulu. It took nearly six years, but Bauer got the call in August that she was a 100 percent match to her uncle's remains.
"They told me not to expect anything when they called me those many years ago," Bauer said. "They told me that mine was the first 100 percent match that they've gotten."
Maki said they would get yearly updates saying not to give up hope and they were still going through remains.
"We just had to have faith that something would happen," said Renee Prout, Tini's niece and Maki's cousin.
'A date which will live in Infamy'
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, sailors on the naval ships moored in Pearl Harbor were going about their business just like any Sunday morning when shortly before 8 a.m. the USS Oklahoma was struck.
"When it occurred the Oklahoma itself was readying for the morning like all the rest of the ships," said Daniel Martinez, chief historian for the National Park Service WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument. "It was just an average Sunday, which was kind of a down day for ships, when all hell breaks loose and water geysers are erupting along the side of the Oklahoma in succession reaching 600 feet in the air."
Martinez said Japanese planes would drop to an altitude of about 30 feet and would release an 18-foot-long torpedo that had the strength and power to explode a hole in the side of the ship that a Mack truck could drive through.
"The torpedos came in such succession that within at least 12 minutes (the Oklahoma) began to lift heavily, taking water on her portside," he said.
The men inside the ship became trapped. The Oklahoma had 429 casualties, second only to the USS Arizona, which lost 1,177 officers and crewmen.
"So she was one of eight ships at Pearl Harbor where five are sunk and three are damaged. It took nearly a year and a half to salvage the ship and right her," Martinez said. "When they finally get her partially righted so that they can enter the ship, the most ghastly affair takes place in the removal of bodies."
Initially, 32 men were pulled from the hull of the Oklahoma over two days after the attack. It took nearly a year and half before the rest were removed and by that time identification was nearly impossible. So the remains pulled from the ship were buried in mass graves in two cemeteries in Hawaii.
In September 1947, tasked with recovering and identifying fallen U.S. personnel in the Pacific Theater, members of the American Graves Registration Service disinterred the remains of U.S. casualties from the two cemeteries and transferred them to a laboratory for identification. The laboratory was able to identify 35 men from the USS Oklahoma at that time and the rest were buried in 62 caskets in 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu.
187 families get closure, so far
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) has been working for nearly six years to identify the remains of those who died on the USS Oklahoma. The DPAA disinterred 62 caskets from 42 plots from the cemetery in Honolulu and took the remains to a laboratory in Lincoln, Neb., in 2015. According to Chuck Prichard, director of public affairs for DPAA, the initial assessment showed that they have remains for 388 individuals and to date they have identified 187 of them.
Maki and Prout said when they got the call that Tini was coming home all they could do was cry.
"We were just overjoyed," Maki said. "We just didn't have words."
Prout said she couldn't believe it when her oldest brother called and told her.
"To me, it's amazing that we are chosen to bring this to closure by God for our family," Prout said. "It's an honor to be here; for us to the ones to bring this to closure for (his parents)."
Tini is set to be buried alongside his parents in May, by his request.
"The Navy had a letter he wrote that said, 'If I should die I want to be buried with my parents wherever they are buried,'" Bauer said.
Maki said he thought his parents were going to go back to Italy, the country the immigrated from.
"So he thought that they might just stay in Italy when they went back, but they never did go back," she said. "So they are buried in Virginia."
All three women said their grandmother always held out hope that Tini would return home, and now that the wheels are in motion, they couldn't be happier.
Keeping his memory alive
Prout and Maki were told about their uncle by their parents and they are still keeping his memory alive today by passing the story on their children and their grandchildren.
"We are grateful that our parents kept his memory alive all the time," Prout said.
The town of Virginia is also keeping his memory alive by naming the VFW hall after him and hanging his photograph in City Hall.
"My father even started a scholarship at the high school that he attended in his name," Maki said.
Though their parents had no problem talking about their younger brother, Prout and Maki said it was hard for their grandmother to talk about. But before she died, Tini's mother gave a photograph to her daughter Alda, Maki and Bauer's mother, and told her that he would return to her before she dies.
"Unfortunately that didn't happen," Bauer said. "A couple of years before my mother died she passed that photograph of Dante on to me and said that he would return to home before I died."
And their mother was right.
Tini will finally be put to rest in the spring. His funeral will be at 11 a.m. May 25 at the Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Virginia, and Prout said everyone is invited.
"We are looking for it to be a celebration," she said.