April 15, 2019

Corbis via Getty Images
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS Oklahoma is seen capsized near the USS Maryland.

Corbis via Getty Images After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS Oklahoma is seen capsized near the USS Maryland.

JACKSONVILLE — The Western Union telegram came on Dec. 21, 1941, two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, confirming what Bessie Meyer already knew: Her son was gone.

“The Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that your son Herbert Joseph Poindexter Jr Seaman First Class US Navy is missing following action in the performance of his duty and in the service of his country. The Department appreciates your great anxiety and will furnish you further information promptly.”

In February, another telegram arrived: “After exhaustive search it has been impossible to locate your son … and he has therefore been officially declared to have lost his life.”

He was 24 when he died five years later, a barber on the battleship USS Oklahoma. He figured he’d be at sea another couple of years, then move to Arizona, where he had a fiancee and a ranch on which he was making payments.

H.J.’s body could not be identified among those recovered from the wreck. And no one could even be sure if his were among the hundreds of remains from the Oklahoma crew that were buried in the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

But in 2015, members of the military’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency exhumed the unknown remains from the ship, counting on modern science to finally identify those who had died. And in September 2018, the agency’s scientists got a DNA match: H.J. Poindexter had finally been found.

This June, more than 77 years after he died, he will buried at the national cemetery in Jacksonville, his hometown.

His mother and sisters all passed away well before he was identified.

“I just started crying because I knew how much that would have meant to my mom and aunt and grandmother,” she said. “It was just really touching, that they took science and turned it into something so emotional to all of these families,” said Poindexter’s niece, Lisa Williams of Fernandina Beach.

Yet she could still help. She told them: There is a surviving blood relative, the son of H.J.’s other sister, Lilyan.

In Tucson, Ariz., Joe Allen took the provided DNA kit, swabbed the inside of his cheek and sent the kit back. It led to a positive match.

Allen, a retired medical physicist, said his mother and her sister idolized their brother, and told him what a good man he was and how crushed they and their mother were by H.J.’s death.

Neither Allen, 76, nor his cousin Williams, who is 56, were born while he was alive. Yet they heard stories, and Williams had her mother’s collection of photos and those fateful telegrams from the Navy.

“Even though it had been so long, it seemed like he was part of the family,” Williams said. “He had a farm in Arizona, he had a fiancee, he had what looked like a real bright future.”

Poindexter had a car that he’d left in Arizona, and after he was killed his mother and sisters drove there to collect it. They met his fiancee and shared their sorrow. Later the young woman sent H.J.’s mother a letter: She was getting married.

“She wanted to let her know she was safe and had met a fine man and wanted to start a family,” Allen said. “And of course my grandmother was happy to know that. Even though she didn’t really know the young lady, she felt a tie because of her connection to H.J.”

Though he was gone, he continued to influence his family.

Joe Allen goes by his middle name, which his mother gave him in honor of H.J.’s middle name. And Williams, a wallpaper hanger, said her mother joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1942, learned to fly planes, and piloted supply planes stateside during the war.

“She felt very patriotic and wanted to honor his memory,” she said. “They depended on him — and then he was gone, never getting to say goodbye.”

The family’s tradition of military service has continued: Williams’ youngest son became a Marine, and served two tours in Afghanistan.

Williams said she gets teary-eyed thinking about how much it means that her uncle’s remains, along with those of others from his ship, are finally being identified.

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Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com