It’s been nearly 80 years since Petty Officer 1st Class William Eugene Blanchard’s family first learned that U.S. Navy officials believed he had died in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
But it wasn’t until about a month ago that they learned that he was in fact among the more than 2,000 sailors, soldiers and civilians killed in the Dec. 7, 1941, attack.
Blanchard’s son, Bill, received a phone call informing him that his father’s remains had been positively identified through DNA testing.
“Are you kidding me?” Bill said his response was to the caller. At the time, he had been sitting in his living room watching TV. “I almost fell off my chair.”
Bill, who is 80, and his family first learned in 2010 that the U.S. Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, was working to identify the remains of 429 sailors who had died while serving aboard the USS Oklahoma.
The agency contacted Bill and a first cousin who lives in Georgia to request DNA samples to assist in the identification process. From there, the family received written updates from DPAA every so often, but their expectations for closure were not high. That is why when a DPAA researcher contacted Bill in February his family was taken aback.
“It was shockingly wonderful,” said Blanchard’s wife, Sandra. “It was a blessing really.”
Stephanie Blanchard, Bill Blanchard’s daughter, said the family had always known Blanchard Sr. had died aboard the Oklahoma. What they did not have was an official notice. Not until the DNA verification.
“There was no question that Gene perished on the Oklahoma,” Stephanie said, referring to her grandfather by his middle name. “This is confirmation.”
Born in Tignall, Georgia, William Eugene Blanchard was a blacksmith by trade before he enlisted in the Navy in 1936. He met his wife, Laura Ann, in Bremerton, Washington, and they were married in 1939. Laura Ann gave birth to Bill in June 1941.
When he arrived in Pearl Harbor, William was a petty officer assigned to the USS Oklahoma. He worked as a “boilermaker” — one of the sailors whose job was to tend to the ship’s boiler system.
The Oklahoma, a Nevada-class battleship, was moored at Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the morning of the Japanese sneak attack on U.S. naval forces. The first of several aircraft-delivered torpedoes struck the Oklahoma amidship at 7:56 a.m., eventually sinking it.
As part of its identification process of Blanchard’s remains, the DPAA provided Bill and his family a spiral-bound book of documents. Among the documents were a photo of the skeletal remains that were tested and confirmed to be those of Bill’s father.
When the family first learned the DPAA had remains they had no idea what that meant.
“We didn’t know what they had,” Sandra Blanchard said.
At first, the family had planned a cremation service. That changed when they realized the DPAA was sending skeletal remains.
Bill pointed to a page in the DPAA book that included a photograph of the bones.
“When we saw this, we said ‘no way we’re cremating that,’” he said.
The remains are being stored at a DPAA facility at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. They will be transported to Virginia and brought to Elizabeth City by Twiford Funeral Home, the Blanchards said.
A memorial service with military honors for William Eugene Blanchard is planned for June 7 at Sam A. Twiford Veteran Park, with burial of his remains to follow at New Hollywood Cemetery. The memorial is scheduled to start at 1:56 p.m., which with the time zone difference will be 7:56 a.m. in Pearl Harbor.
‘She never gave up’
Also in the DPAA book were copies of letters Laura Ann Blanchard wrote the Navy seeking information about her husband’s death. While she later remarried she never gave up that search.
Through the years, Laura Ann attended USS Oklahoma survivors reunions, hoping to speak to anyone who could help her understand the events surrounding her first husband’s death. When Laura Ann died about 14 years ago, she was still holding out hope of learning something about what happened.
“She would have been thrilled” that his remains have been identified, Sandra said. “She never gave up.”
Laura Ann always believed her first husband’s remains would be found.
“She was right,” Stephanie said.
William was a prolific letter writer, and many of those letters were passed on to Stephanie from her grandmother. In his letters leading up to his death, William wrote fondly of his son and wanted to know how he was doing.
“He wrote about his baby, ‘Billy’ — that’s all he wanted to know about,” Stephanie said.
On the day of the attack at Pearl Harbor, Blanchard had decided to remain on board ship for a while to write a letter to Laura Ann. She was 19 at the time.
“It was a day off,” Sandra said. “He stayed on board to write a letter home.”
William’s letters also indicate that he was planning to get out of the Navy when his enlistment was up. In one letter, he listed several things that needed to be done when he returned, such as making car repairs, Stephanie said.
According to a news release from the DPAA, William’s remains were positively identified on Jan. 4. The DPAA has identified the remains of more than 300 sailors aboard the Oklahoma.
“They never give up,” Sandra Blanchard said, of the work DPAA is doing. “They keep identifying remains that have been around for 80 years.”
“We were just one of many families who are now getting contacted,” Stephanie said. “It’s just amazing.”
In preparing for William’s memorial, Bill and Sandra purchased three plots at New Hollywood Cemetery. One is where they will bury William in a steel, watertight casket provided by the Navy. The other two plots are reserved for them.
Elizabeth City was not William’s home, but it’s home to his son and that’s OK, Sandra said. They will all rest together.
“He’s going to be with his baby,” she said.