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Remains of Maryland sailor killed at Pearl Harbor to be laid to rest

An undated photo shows Albert Eugene Hayden, a Navy sailor from Maryland who died in the Pearl Harbor attack, in his uniform.
An undated photo shows Albert Eugene Hayden, a Navy sailor from Maryland who died in the Pearl Harbor attack, in his uniform. (Courtesy of Albert Hayden's family / HANDOUT)

For three-quarters of a century Albert Eugene Hayden lay unidentified in a mass grave, buried in Hawaii with hundreds of other Americans who died in the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

But on Wednesday, Hayden — one of the first Marylanders to be killed in World War II — is coming home to St. Mary's County to be buried in a Catholic cemetery beside his mother and father.

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"It's been a long haul," said Edward D. Hayden, a nephew who is Hayden's closest surviving relative. "We got him where we want him to go and where my grandmom wanted him."

The Defense Department's identification of Hayden — who was known as "Rouch" — ended up bringing together two branches of his extended family that had drifted apart to arrange the funeral near his hometown of Mechanicsville. They expect the service where he'll be buried with full military honors to be attended by at least 100 relatives plus cadets from the private military school in Leonardtown where Hayden first fell in love with the Navy.

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At 44 years old, Hayden had been a career sailor, working his way up to chief electrician's mate. He had enlisted during World War I and was assigned to the battleship USS Texas, the first of 17 assignments between the wars, according to Navy records.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Hayden was serving aboard the USS Oklahoma, one of eight battleships moored at Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese attack was swift.

Hundreds of planes launched from aircraft carriers sped toward the unprepared American naval base, pummeling the battleships with bombs. The Oklahoma took several hits and capsized within minutes, killing 429 sailors and Marines.

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Their remains were recovered gradually from the harbor over the course of three years and interred at Hawaiian cemeteries. In 1947, the Defense Department made a mostly unsuccessful attempt to put names to those remains before reburying the 388 unaccounted-for service members in 61 caskets at a cemetery known as the Punchbowl.

Hayden's death and the impossibility of giving him a proper funeral weighed on his family, relatives say. Hayden's mother, Emma, wrote a relative two months after the attack saying that the War Department had not accounted for him and that she believed that he was at the bottom of Pearl Harbor with the ship.

"My existence is crushed," Emma Hayden wrote. "This is a cruel, cold world. I try hard to make the best of it, so as to not make others unhappy."

It wasn't until 2015 that the Defense Department decided to make another attempt at identifying the remains.

"The DoD remains committed to fulfilling its sacred obligation to achieve the fullest possible accounting for U.S. personnel lost in past conflicts," Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work wrote in a memo directing the new effort.

Officials had collected medical and dental records for 90 percent of the Oklahoma sailors, Work wrote, and they would end up being critical in identifying Hayden. By November, the defense agency charged with identifying unknown remains reported that the caskets of those who died on the Oklahoma had been disinterred.

Then, in January, the Pentagon announced that Hayden and four others had been conclusively identified. The news soon reached Zoe Ann Vest, an avid genealogist who serves as the Hayden family's historian, and Ronnie Kissinger, another relative who still lives in Southern Maryland.

"She and I said we want to be part of this," said Kissinger, whose mother was Hayden's cousin. "We did not want to miss out on being there to welcome him back."

But there was a snag. The Navy wouldn't tell Kissinger who the official next of kin was, and she didn't know about Edward Hayden. Kissinger spent more than a month hunting by herself but ran into dead ends. She decided to try George W. Owings, the secretary of Maryland's Veterans Affairs Department.

"We don't usually get those kinds of requests," Owings said.

But he was happy to help and able to make the last connection, introducing her to Edward Hayden, who lives in Crapo in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore. Owings plans to attend the funeral to represent the governor.

Edward Hayden said it was a "cold shock" to hear from Kissinger, but he was glad for her help in organizing the funeral.

"If it hadn't of been for Ronnie, I don't know how I would have done it," he said. "There's so much involved."

Hayden said he planned to contact St. Joseph's Catholic Cemetery in Morganza, to see if there was any way to get his uncle buried. But it turned out that there was already a plot saved next to Emma Hayden — and, according to family lore, it was her dying wish that her son should one day be laid to rest by her side.

For Edward Hayden, the culmination of his work comes with a major disappointment. He has been unwell and won't be able to travel across the Chesapeake Bay for the funeral.

"But hey, I got Uncle Rouch with my grandma," he said. "We're all on this Earth for one thing — God's got it planned for us — maybe that's mine."

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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