Ignoring the pain of walking in heels, Dee Dee King marched silently behind the horse-drawn carriage bearing the remains of Petty Officer 2nd Class Gerald Clayton.
It had been 77 years since Clayton, then 21, died aboard the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor. King had no personal ties to Clayton or anyone else in his Nebraska hometown.
Still, the funeral July 5 in Central City was going to be hard. The grandmother from Texas — born 10 years after the Pearl Harbor attack — considered Clayton one of “her boys.”
“I knew I was going to lose it,” she said. “They played taps — I started crying.”
King works as a forensic genealogist for the Navy. Last month’s long-delayed burial service was the fruit of her research dating back to 2011, when she first contacted Clayton’s family.
“She’s been the driving force,” said Sheri Spomer, Clayton’s niece. “After the ceremony, she came and gave me a hug. She was crying. It was so emotional for her.”
King, 68, has worked under contract with the Navy since 2009, tracking down and collecting DNA samples from family members of missing Navy service members dating back as far as World War II. The work is not so different from what many hobbyists do when they research their own family trees, but forensic genealogists focus on cases with legal implications.
“For some people, it would be just a job,” said her husband, Rick, a Vietnam War veteran. “For her, it’s more of a calling.”
The trip from Houston to Nebraska also provided the Kings the opportunity to tour the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base, where the remains of Clayton and many of the other veterans whose families King has worked with were identified.
Over the years, King said, she has contacted relatives of at least 1,200 MIA sailors — including at least 320 of the 389 who, like Clayton, were unaccounted-for after Japanese torpedoes sank the Oklahoma in the first minutes of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack. She estimated that she has talked with 2,000 to 3,000 family members of USS Oklahoma MIAs alone.
The battleship, with the bodies of most of its dead crew still inside, remained submerged until it was raised more than a year after the attack. Bones could not be identified, and remains were buried in graves marked “Unknown” at Hawaii cemeteries. An effort to identify remains after the war’s conclusion failed, and they were reburied at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
Only in 2015 did the Defense Department decide to disinter and identify the lost, using modern DNA technology. So far well over 200 have been identified, most returned to hometowns to be buried next to loved ones.
“Almost everybody I talked to had stories,” King said during a recent interview in Omaha. “For most of them, I was the first person who had ever contacted them (about the Oklahoma).”
King’s job isn’t all that different from that of a detective or a news reporter. She scours the Internet and mines databases. She pleads for the release of records. She cold-calls people, and comforts them when they cry.
“You start casting a wide net, until you find something,” King said. “I’ve called people on Thanksgiving, I’ve called people on Christmas. I’ve stayed up until midnight.”
Born in a small town in the Texas Panhandle, King moved around the oil patch of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico because of her father’s job in the oil industry before her family settled in Southern California during her junior year in high school. In 1968, her then-boyfriend, Gary Haynes, deployed to Vietnam shortly after the Tet Offensive. Back home, she protested the war.
He earned an early ticket home from his one-year tour after being wounded three times.
The couple married and had two daughters. But King’s husband suffered badly from shrapnel wounds, ulcers and what she described as “horrible PTSD” in an era before treatment.
“He never got the attention he needed. Ever,” she said. They divorced a few years later.
A single mother living in Austin, Texas, she got a job tending bar. One day a long-haired, motorcycle-riding, Vietnam veteran named Rick King came in. Dee Dee described him as “the loudest, most obnoxious guy in the bar.” She threatened to throw him out.
“Six months later, we got married,” she said, laughing. Even their friends doubted the marriage would last. But Rick was kinder than he appeared during their first meeting, and Dee Dee’s daughters adored him.
For years, off and on, Dee Dee worked as a social worker. For both husband and wife, helping veterans became a passion. Dee Dee created and implemented a program for homeless veterans in their home county.
In the late 1990s, she became hooked on genealogy after receiving a computer program to organize family trees. She took some classes in genealogy, and a hobby became a job. She became a board-certified genealogist and started a one-woman firm called Forensic Genealogy Services LLC.
King took on cases for lawyers. She helped to start the Council for the Advancement of Forensic Genealogy, and developed classes to train others in forensic genealogy.
In 2009, a military contractor in Washington approached her about helping on a Navy contract bid to search for and obtain DNA samples from families of MIA service members. The contractors had no background in the field, but King did, and they wanted her to sign off on their investigations.
King was excited by the idea of helping to identify missing sailors. But she didn’t want to work for someone else.
So she downloaded the packet of bidding documents — more than 100 pages — and, with some help from her daughter, submitted her own contract offer. It was scary. She’d never done anything like this before. But she felt as if she had found what she was meant to do.
“Every night when I went to bed, I would say, ‘I’m going to get this contract. I know it. It’s mine,’ ” King said.
And after a wait that seemed to take forever, she won.
King brought an honest, homespun manner to the process. And a compassion for the families she reached.
“People started telling me stories. These were all people — all sons, fathers, brothers,” King said. “For that brother or sister that you call, it may have been 75 years. But it’s like it was yesterday.”
King starts with only basic personnel facts from the Navy. It’s the families who color in the background.
She remembers talking to the brother of one USS Oklahoma sailor who burst into tears as soon as she mentioned the sailor’s name.
The now elderly man said he had followed his brother around everywhere before he joined the Navy.
“I was just old enough to remember when my mother was notified he was killed,” the man told her. “Our family was never the same.”
The younger sister of another sailor, who came from a poor farm family in the Midwest, said her father had encouraged the boy to join the military to learn a trade. The father signed a permission slip so the son could enlist.
Then he was killed at Pearl Harbor.
“His mother never forgave his father,” King said. “She fell on the radio and clutched it when she heard the news.”
Some families prefer denial, she said. Some parents preferred to think their sons survived, and began a new life somewhere else.
“These families have PTSD,” she said.
Sometimes King places calls on the missing sailor’s birthday, or the anniversary of the day he went missing, hoping relatives will be thinking about their missing loved one.
Others are difficult to find. Some of the young men grew up in other countries where records are hard to trace, or were adopted or came from orphanages.
“You write to everybody you can find,” King said. “Sometimes you work and you work, and you can’t find a thing.”
While working on the Oklahoma project, though, she has found family for nearly every missing sailor.
At one time, the Navy resisted opening the graves of “unknowns” like those on the Oklahoma. But King never doubted it was the right thing to do.
“It either is ‘No man left behind,’ or it isn’t,” she said.
Hundreds of burials later — many of them joyous celebrations involving entire communities, like Gerald Clayton’s burial last month — she feels she’s been proven right.
“I know these guys want to come home,” King said. “They’re waiting.”