LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) – Nearly 2,400 members of the U.S. military were killed in the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. A La Crosse man was among the 429 crewmen who died on the USS Oklahoma.
The ship was first commissioned in 1916. It served during WWI. The vessel became part of the Pacific fleet in Hawaii in 1940 to do training exercises. That’s when Seaman 1st Class George Naegle of La Crosse came aboard.
“He enlisted in the Navy in January 1940. He arrived to the Oklahoma later in the year,” said Guy Nasuti, Naval History and Heritage Command Historian in Maryland.
Life on the ship wasn’t easy, Nasuti said. Naegle probably made about $54 a month as an enlisted man. He explained that the Seaman First Class would’ve been involved in the various duties in the upkeep of the ship.
But the men did have down time. Living on board the ship they had sports clubs. Naegle may have been involved in basketball or baseball teams.
Naegle’s niece, 83-year-old Mary Ann Lyden, said she’s heard stories that he was very athletic. Lyden is one of his closest living relatives.
“It just became part of me. He became part of me in my thoughts and in my heart because he was my mother’s brother and he was very well liked especially in the family,” explained Lyden.
“It would’ve been absolute chaos aboard as the first torpedo slammed the ship,” described Nasuti. On December 7th, 1941 Japanese bomber planes blasted the ship with three torpedoes. 429 crewmen died.
“As it started to sink it began to roll over and as it did so it was hit by two more torpedoes. Essentially it rolled over so the ship was upside down at that point. The only reason it stopped because its mast had hit the bottom of the ocean bed.”
“A lot of sailors were trapped below decks. I think 32 that actually after the attack had been banging on the bottom of the ship to get the attention of dock yard workers and other sailors that came to get them out of the ship,” said Nasuti.
In many cases the sailors bodies, including George Naegle’s, could not be recovered or identified and were buried in the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.
“From the beginning, there was just so much sadness between my grandparents and my mother, you just knew at five years old something was wrong,” said Lyden.
In 2015, using DNA technology. scientists exhumed the remains and began identifying them. Mary Ann was asked for her DNA which helped identify her uncle.
“It’s a long time and it was a surprise to me and a surprise to my family that they even found anything of him because we didn’t think it was possible.”
A surprise made possible through years of technology and nearly 78 years later a way to finally bring our service men home.
As of December 2018, the agency has identified 186 sailors and Marines from the Oklahoma who were previously unidentified.