Braman-born sailor brought home
WICHITA, Kans. – Southwest Airlines Flight No. 6590 glistened in the sun as it arrived at the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport at 11:28 a.m. Tuesday.
As the plane pulled up to Gate No. 4, a crowd waved and cheered from inside the airport. Airport firefighters parked their bright, green trucks on the tarmac, spraying the plane down with water as it pulled up to gate.
Helen Weller and her family watched as members of the Wichita Navy Reserve removed a flag-draped coffin from the cargo bay of the plane.
“It’s a great feeling,” Weller, 87, said. “I’m just thankful that we got him home.”
Seventy-nine years and 10 months after he was killed during the 1941 attack on the Pearl Harbor Naval Base, Oklahoma-born World War II veteran Rex E. Wise was brought home on Tuesday.
His remains were delivered to his family and funeral home workers at the Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport during a ceremony Tuesday, the 245th birthday of the U.S. Navy – and one day before Wise would have been 100 years old.
“It’s a great feeling,” Weller, Wise’s niece, said at the ceremony.
Wise was born in Braman, Oklahoma on Oct. 14, 1920. He later moved to South Haven, Kansas.
He was stationed onboard the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu on Dec. 7, 1941 when Japanese aerial forces bombed the harbor, the impetus for the United States to enter World War II. Wise was one of 429 men onboard the USS Oklahoma who died in the attack.
Wise, who was 21 years old at the time, was one of hundreds of sailors at the base whose bodies couldn’t be immediately identified.
Following the attack, the Navy buried the bodies of deceased sailors from the USS Oklahoma in the Halawa and Nu’uanu cemeteries on the island of Oahu. Some sailors, including Wise, were later reburied in an area known as the “Punchbowl” at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. Wise’s remains were exhumed from the memorial cemetery in 2015 for analysis.
Personnel with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency identified Wise’s remains on Oct. 17, 2019 after examining his dental records and obtaining saliva from his sister, Eunice Wittum.
Wise was exhumed three different times before he was identified, his family said.
On Wednesday – which would have been his 100th birthday – he’ll be laid to rest for the last time. He’ll be buried alongside his parents in the Braman Cemetery, just 10 miles away from South Haven.
BRINGING HIM HOME
During the Tuesday ceremony at the airport, members of the Wichita Navy Reserve presented Wise’s flag-draped casket to personnel with Roberts and Sons Funeral Home of Blackwell, Oklahoma, the company overseeing Wise’s burial on Wednesday.
Members of the American Legion Riders escorted his casket from the airport after the ceremony.
Air Force veteran David Ruedy, a member of the American Legion Riders, was one of more than 20 motorcycle-riding Legion members in the escort.
“This is a first for me, and I’m sure it’s a first for most of us,” he said. “We’ve had the honor of – and it doesn’t sound right when you say the ‘honor’ – but we have had the honor of escorting fallen soldiers from every war when they come into the airport, whether it’s local, whether it’s down in Oklahoma, but World War II? This is a first, and I am amazed that they are finally getting these remains back to the family.”
Few of Wise’s survivors had the chance to meet him. Weller, the oldest of Rex Wise’s nieces and nephews, was one.
“I was 3 years old the last I saw him,” she said at the ceremony.
She remembers when Rex’s mother, Belle Wise, heard the news that Rex had been killed. However, the loss seemed to be doubled. At the time, she thought that both Rex and his brother, Wid Wise, were dead. Both had been stationed at Pearl Harbor.
Weller’s mother got the telegram, too.
“That was the first I remember,” she said. “Mom got the telegram, and that’s the first time – I was probably 7 – but that’s the first time I saw my mother cry. That’s what I remember.”
The family didn’t know that Wid left the base for an assignment in Australia just two weeks earlier. And they didn’t find out he was alive for a year.
“During the war, you didn’t get letters,” Weller said. “But he did send a telegram from New York on Mother’s Day to Grandma the next year, and said, ‘I’m in New York. I’m fine. Happy Mother’s Day.’ That was the first we knew he was alive.”
Even though Wid was still living, the family mourned the loss of Rex. They didn’t know where he was.
Now, they do.
“Words just can’t describe it,” she said. “I wish we could have known him, but it wasn’t meant to be.”
Wise was originally supposed to be brought home in April, but the family opted to postpone his burial because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s been a long time,” Weller said. “We thought we were going to have this in April, and we decided to cancel it on account of the virus deal. I’m just thankful that we can have it now, and it’s a beautiful day. The people are so nice. Really, everything worked out for the best.”
As the white hearse drove away from the tarmac, Weller smiled.
Rex was home.
“It’s just kind of unbelievable,” she said. “We knew it was coming. He’s finally being laid to rest.”
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