A few years ago, Ted Hummell got an odd call. It was the Department of Defense and they wanted his help in their efforts to identify the remains of his uncle, William Hellstern. Hummell, a 67-year-old Jaguar dealer who lives in Castle Rock, knew his uncle through his late mom.
"She cried every Dec. 7," Hummell said.
That's the day Hellstern, a Navy gunner's mate, died. He was assigned to the U.S.S. Oklahoma, which in 1941 was moored at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor when Japanese aircraft attacked with torpedoes. The battleship took multiple hits and capsized. The lives of 429 crew members, including Helstern, who was just 20 years old, were lost.
In subsequent years and decades, the military made attempts to recover the remains of the crew, but by 1947 had identified just 35 of them. The rest were believed "non-recoverable," according to the Defense Department, and brought to a group of shared plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
Nearly 70 years later, the Defense Secretary's Office sent a directive to disinter the unknowns believed to have served on the U.S.S. Oklahoma. Exhumations began in 2015.
That was when the call came to Hummell. He was asked for a swabbing from his cheek - a DNA sample. He was also asked for a secondary sample and found one pressed in the pages of his mother's Bible.
"She kept her hair in a braid in the pages, so I sent some to them," Hummell said.
Years went by and then, out of the blue, he got a call back. The military's Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, had identified Hellstern's remains.
"I started bawling, just started bawling, because I've grown up with this," Hummell said. "You know, his medals, some newspapers, stuff like that. I just started bawling like a baby. I couldn't believe it."
The remains of some 82,000 American service members from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars are unaccounted for. The DPAA believes about 40 percent are believed recoverable.
Hellstern is originally from Illinois. He will be buried with full military honors on Friday, May 18 at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Wheat Ridge.