MOCCASIN, Ill. (WCIA) — A central Illinois sailor’s remains have finally returned home after spending 80 years in Hawaii, his identity unknown during that time.
Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Keith Tipsword of Moccasin was one of approximately 2,400 Americans who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. His duty station, the battleship USS West Virginia, was hit by at least seven torpedoes and two bombs during the attack and sank to the harbor floor. 105 West Virginia crewmen, including Tipsword, perished in the attack.
It wasn’t until this summer that Tipsword’s remains were positively identified. His family had them brought home last week and will bury them on Tuesday.
“Obviously he’s long gone, but to have him here in Effingham County in a tangible way, well, that’d be pretty special,” said Tipsword’s nephew Greg Sapp.
Sapp was born long after his uncle died and thus never got to meet him. Sapp’s mother Dalyne was born the same year he enlisted and was only five when her brother died. Due to her young age and Tipsword’s limited time at home, Sapp said his mother doesn’t have “crystal clear” memories of him.
“Her memories are kind of cloudy,” Sapp said. “But she has good memories, the few that she does have. That he was a good brother, and her mother and father were very fond of him.”
Sapp added that Dalyne has several souvenirs of her brother, like a photo of him and salt and pepper shakers he made aboard West Virginia and sent home. Sapp said it was through these souvenirs that she got to know her brother.
But Dalyne and her family never had a grave close to home they could visit.
Upon recovery, Tipsword’s body could not be identified by Navy personnel and was buried as an unknown in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, nicknamed the Punchbowl, in Honolulu. They remained there for over 75 years before being disinterred by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in 2017.
The DPAA is a Department of Defense agency dedicated to recovering American personnel listed as prisoners of war or missing in action from previous wars. One of its first projects was to identify the 388 unknowns of the USS Oklahoma; personnel succeeded in identifying 355, including a man from Auburn.
The success of the Oklahoma project led the DPAA to expand its work to other ships at Pearl Harbor the morning of the attack, including West Virginia. Dalyne and her sister submitted DNA samples to help identify their brother’s remains; using these samples and referring to Navy medical and dental records, Tipsword’s remains were identified in July.
Sapp never expected his uncle to be found, which is why he initially didn’t believe it when the Navy called him in September.
“All of a sudden, this fella from the Navy calls me and said ‘Hey, we identified your uncle.’ Well I have to admit, doing what I do, my scam alert went up,” Sapp said. “But we talked for a long time and he convinced me yes, he indeed was from the Navy, that this was legitimate.”
By this time, Sapp’s aunt had passed away, leaving Dalyne as the only one of Tipsword’s siblings to bring their brother home.
Tipsword’s remains were flown from Hawaii to St. Louis last week and were escorted to Effingham on Veteran’s Day by members of the Patriot Guard Riders. On Tuesday, after a service in Effingham, Tipsword’s remains will be taken to Moccasin for final burial with full military honors.
“That’s where he grew up, so that’s where he ought to be,” Sapp said. “His parents are there, his grandparents are there, one of his sisters is there. So that’s just the right place for him to end things; same place as where he started.”
Dr. Laurel Freas, Project Lead for the Pearl Harbor Ships Project, said there were 25 unresolved casualties from West Virginia and 35 associated unknowns in the Punchbowl when the project started. Since they were disinterred, DPAA personnel have identified 13 West Virginia unknowns.
The DPAA is also working to identify unknowns from the USS California and the USS Utah.
“I hope that, if there are other people out there that didn’t have any hope or any expectation that they might be reunited with their loved ones, hang in there,” Sapp said. “Because the hope is your time will be coming. Our understanding is the Navy’s doing this a ship at a time and it was the West Virginia‘s turn. And here we have Keith having a homecoming we really never expected.”