Time moves quickly, especially in a town as fast-growing and rapidly changing as League City. As the years roll on, memory fades — what was once current is now almost-forgotten history.
The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, happened about 77 years ago — most of a lifetime. But that historic moment, for some deeply connected to it, did not happen so long ago. And they have not forgotten.
“I remember it only too well,” said Betty Perkins, 87, the younger sister of Navy Seaman 2nd Class Richard J. Thomson. “It was a very, very sad day for all of us — for everyone. Of course, we didn’t even find out until a few days later that his ship was destroyed and him along with it.”
Thomson will return home June 1, to be buried alongside his parents at Fairview Cemetery with full military honors, after leaving League City for the last time as a young teenager going off to service in the Navy, according to his family members.
“It was a lifelong mission of my father’s to find his brother’s remains and bring them home,” said Janet Jackson, one of Thomson’s nieces. “Unfortunately, my father passed away in December 2010 at 85. The family is overjoyed that Dick is finally coming home after 77 plus years, but it is bittersweet for me, as I so would have loved to share this moment with my dad.”
AMONG THE MISSING
Although long included on a list of sailors missing and presumed killed aboard the USS Oklahoma during the attack on Pearl Harbor, Navy investigators only in March through new DNA analysis determined that remains in an anonymous grave in Hawaii was of the 18-year-old League City man, according to officials with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
“I’m very happy and joyful that they did identify him,” Perkins said. “But when I was growing up, I’d always come home from school and have the excited thought that maybe he’d be home, that they were wrong, and he just had amnesia after the attack. You always heard those stories.”
The bombing of Pearl Harbor was a surprise airstrike by dive bombers and torpedo plans against the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet base in Honolulu, Hawaii, that killed about 2,400 people and injured another 1,100. The next day, the United States officially entered World War II.
The Nevada-class battleship USS Oklahoma, moored at Ford Island, was struck by several torpedoes during the attack and eventually capsized, killing 429 crewmen, according to the accounting agency.
Perkins remembers waking up that morning to the news, and hearing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous speech “A Date Which Will Live in Infamy,” she said.
“Mainly, I remember my parents were just devastated,” she said. “We were all very sad.”
The years since that day have been anything but straightforward for Thomson’s family and relatives.
LONG TRIP HOME
Navy personnel worked from December 1941 to June 1944 to recover the remains of the Oklahoma’s fallen crewmen and interred them at Halawa and Nu’uanu cemeteries in Hawaii, officials with the agency said.
But then, in September 1947, investigators with the American Graves Registration Service disinterred the remains of U.S. casualties from the two cemeteries and transferred them to a laboratory at Schofield Barracks as part of a larger effort to recover and identify fallen personnel in the war’s Pacific Theater, according to the accounting agency.
Laboratory staff members could then only confirm the identity of 35 men aboard the ship at the time and buried the other unidentified remains in 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu, according to the accounting agency. A military board in 1949 classified those who could not be identified, including Thomson, as non-recoverable.
“The whole process started back up again in 2003,” said Patty Johnson, Perkin’s daughter and one of Thomson’s relatives who communicated with the Navy through the process.
Starting in 2003, several legislators asked the military whether it could attempt DNA analysis on some of the remains, which included more than 50 caskets of comingled remains, Johnson said.
Navy leaders eventually consented and sent the caskets to two forensic labs — one in Hawaii and one in Nebraska — and investigators began analyzing bone fragments, Johnson said.
“Fast-forward to 2015, they had everything in place, and started sending out information and asking for DNA samples from family members,” Johnson said.
Investigators took samples and cross-matched them with every bone fragment they sampled from the caskets, Johnson said. By mid-February, they had positively identified Thomson and notified the family in March.
A PLACE PREPARED
Despite the decades it took to officially identify Thomson, several Galveston County leaders worked to keep the veteran’s memory and legacy alive in League City.
Andrew Daniel, a county employee and former police chief in League City, back in 2006 worked with a group that built a monument for residents killed in wars. It stands near the entrance of Chester L. Davis Sportsplex and includes Thomson’s name, he said.
“The moving thing about his story is that they’re going to bury him in Fairview Cemetery here in League City, where they’ve held a plot for him for 78 years,” Daniel said.
Navy officials offered to bury Thomson at Arlington National Cemetery, but the family instead decided to let him return home to League City to be buried alongside his parents, James Thomson and Pearl Mitchell Thomson, Jackson said.
“We said it would be nice, but mom and dad have waited a long time for him,” Perkins said. “We decided it would be best to bring him and put him where they are.”
Thomson was born in Texas City and graduated from League City High School, Perkins said.
“He was the best brother you could have had,” Perkins said. “My other brothers liked to tease me sometimes, like brothers do, but he always stuck up for me.
“I called him my champion. He was just a very kind, sweetly-dispositioned young man. He was a whole lot like mom, quiet and gentle. I hated it when he went into the Navy, knowing I wouldn’t be able to see him that often.”
CHILDREN OF WAR
Jacqueline Grossman, 92, now lives in Galveston, but graduated from League City High School in 1944. The news that Thomson had been identified brought back a lot of memories, she said.
“It’s important to remember that these kids, children, went off to war,” Grossman said. “So many people forget that these young people gave their lives for our freedom. He was just a wonderful kid — the big man on campus.”
Thomson’s father, James Thomson, was born in 1894 in Scotland and ran away from home when he was 14, Johnson said. James Thomson eventually moved to the Galveston County area, served in World War I and met Pearl Mitchell Thomson, born in 1898, Johnson said.
Pearl Thomson’s father was the first minister at the First Baptist Church in League City, Johnson said.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Thomsons spent years trying to bring back their son’s remains, Perkins said. James Thomson died in 1981 and Pearl Thomson died in 1990.
Most of Richard Thomson’s remaining relatives are now scattered across Texas, some in Beeville and others in Kerrville, and so June 1 will be an opportunity to return to the land they originally called home, Perkins said.
HOPE FOR OTHERS
But, more than that, Thomson’s summer funeral will serve as a hopeful reminder to the relatives of those still missing, Perkins said.
More than 400,000 of the 16 million Americans who served during World War II died during the war, officials said. About 72,700 people are still unaccounted for — of which about 26,000 are considered possibly recoverable, officials said.
Once investigators finish their work on the remains from the USS Oklahoma, they plan to move on to remains from the USS West Virginia, Johnson said.
“I hope it gives someone else hope that theirs might be sent back some day too,” Perkins said. “You never know. It’s a happy day for us knowing that Richard’s finally settled at home.”