Updated: 12:51 p.m. | Posted: 11:44 a.m.
Dante Tini, the 19-year-old sailor who died at Pearl Harbor and for decades was unidentified, is back home in Virginia.
A late night flight into Duluth International Airport on Thursday carried Navy Radioman 3rd Class Tini, who died aboard the USS Oklahoma on Dec. 7, 1941, during the infamous attack on the Hawaiian base.
As the flag-draped casket was carried off the plane and into a hearse that waited on the airport's tarmac, dozens of family members and Honor Guard gathered to pay their respects to Tini. None of them had ever met the fallen sailor, but family members recalled he was presence in their lives every military holiday, as someone whose story was passed down like folklore through the generations.
"He was just never, ever, ever forgotten," said niece Renee Prout. "They made sure we grew up with him, even though he wasn't there."
For several decades Tini's remains were never identified until another niece, Barb Maki, received a call in 2012 from the Navy looking for relatives to perform a DNA test. Last August, Maki's sister, Rachel Bauer, was proven to be a 100 percent match.
"We were shocked and overjoyed that we could finally put closure to the Tini family for them," Maki said.
Tini's arrival in Duluth was the first known military casket delivered to the airport, an honor arranged by 8th District Congressman Pete Stauber and his wife, Jodi. The flight was originally planned to arrive in the Twin Cities, and both were on hand Thursday.
The Staubers were also critical in the planned 148th Fighter Wing flyover during the funeral Saturday. Jodi, a veteran of the Iraq War, was the first female Command Chief of the 148th.
Virginia Mayor Larry Cuffe Jr., an Air Force veteran who also helped with the arrangements, said Tini's arrival was extra special for the city. Its Servicemen's Club — Crellin-Tini Post 1113 — which is home to the Veterans of Foreign War, bears the sailor's name.
Cuffe called the events this Memorial Day weekend "heartwarming" and a reminder of the sacrifices made during World War II. But most of all, he said it provided a chance for the family to know Tini beyond the stories passed down.
"Dante Tini is ours, and now he's home," Cuffe said.
Services for Tini will be held 11 a.m. Saturday at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Virginia. A parade-style escort will carry the radioman to Calvary Cemetery, where the procession will stop in front of the VFW for about three minutes while a bagpiper plays "Amazing Grace." A sign will also hang outside the entrance reading "MIA No More."
Cuffe said police and firefighters will stand at attention as the procession passes with a large American flag expected to fly from a ladder truck.
At Calvary Cemetery, he will be buried with full military honors and a flyover by the 148th Fighter Wing.