Had Omaha native Chester Seaton lived to a ripe old age, he would be celebrating his 97th birthday on Wednesday.
Instead, 76 years after his death in the attack on Pearl Harbor, he’ll be buried alongside his parents, for the first time under a headstone that bears his name.
Seaton, a Navy petty officer first class, died Dec. 7, 1941, aboard the USS Oklahoma. His bones, commingled with those of nearly 400 of his shipmates, were buried for decades in a Hawaiian military cemetery beneath gravestones marked “Unknown.”
He is the 149th USS Oklahoma crew member to be identified through the efforts of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base since 2015, when the caskets holding remains from the battleship were disinterred from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific for identification using modern DNA technology.
He is the first of 15 native Nebraskans to be identified. Five western Iowa sailors also died aboard the Oklahoma. Two, Eli Olsen of Exira and George Ford of Carroll, have been identified.
“It was pretty emotional when we heard they identified Uncle Chester,” said Gregory Seaton, 72, of Morgan Hill, California, who is Chester Seaton’s closest living relative.
He said Chester is being buried in Tacoma, Washington, where his family moved in the mid-1920s. He was the fourth of six children, all born in Omaha to Ernest and Alice Seaton. After they moved to the Pacific Northwest, Alice worked as a maid and Ernest as an electrician. But he died in 1928 of a heart attack, at age 37.
“My grandmother had to raise six kids by herself,” Gregory Seaton said.
As soon as they could, the children worked to help support the family. Chester left high school in 10th grade and took jobs as a landscaper until he was old enough to join the Navy, in 1940.
In 1941, Seaton, 20, served aboard the Oklahoma with Petty Officer Lorentz Hultgren, 23, who grew up in Tacoma and was married to Seaton’s sister Beatrice.
Hultgren was among the 388 Oklahoma crewmen who died at Pearl Harbor but were buried as unknowns. His remains were identified earlier this year just a few weeks after Seaton’s. But no funeral plans have yet been announced by Hultgren’s relatives.
Gregory Seaton, who was born less than four years after his two uncles were killed, said surviving family members barely spoke of them when he was growing up. Only a single small photo of Chester Seaton in uniform survives. His parents and siblings all died decades ago. Beatrice, who remarried after World War II, died in 1992.
“It’s been a mystery,” he said. “There’s nobody left to ask.”
But Seaton began researching their lives in 2015 after learning of the accounting agency’s plans to identify the dead from the Oklahoma. He requested both uncles’ military records from the National Archives. In it he found some correspondence from Alice and Bea. He learned that both men had been posthumously awarded Purple Hearts, but he doesn’t know what happened to them.
The upcoming funeral, he said, has brought together different parts of the Seaton family who grew up far apart. He’s impressed the government would go to such lengths to recover and identify the nation’s war dead.
“It’s kind of cool that we haven’t forgotten,” he said.