Nebraska native Grant Cook lay for decades in a grave in Hawaii, his remains mingled anonymously with those of fellow sailors who died with him Dec. 7, 1941, aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma, during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Cook, a Navy fireman 1st class from Cozad, was buried for a second time Thursday in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific — this time alone but identified, honored by his loved ones, with taps and a rifle salute. And in a grave that will be topped by stone bearing his name — no longer “Unknown.”
“After all these years, Hawaii just seemed to be the right place,” said Jean Cook Sheehan, 96, of Lecanto, Florida, Graham’s sister and closest living relative. “I felt that was the final destination.”
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Sheehan was too infirm to travel to Hawaii for the military funeral, but her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter represented the family. Retired Lt. Col. Scott Schmidt, adjutant of the Grant Cook Jr. VFW Post 890 in Cozad, represented his hometown.
Cook, who worked in the ship’s boiler room, died during the first minutes of the attack after several Japanese torpedoes struck the Oklahoma while it was moored on Battleship Row. Most of the 429 service members who died were trapped below decks when the ship rolled over and sank to the bottom of the bay. Only 35 were identified at the time.
The bodies of the others were recovered when the ship was salvaged and buried in local cemeteries. They were dug up after the war and an attempt made at identification, but that proved impossible with the forensic tools available at the time. They were reburied at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, in graves without names.
In 2015, after a long bureaucratic tussle, the Pentagon decided to disinter the USS Oklahoma remains and make another effort to identify them using modern DNA technology. Over several months, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency shipped caskets containing about 13,000 bones to its lab at Offutt Air Force Base, in Grant Cook’s home state, for identification.
Nearly four years into the process, 206 of the 394 unidentified Oklahoma sailors have been identified. So have two of 49 unidentified sailors from the USS West Virginia, which also sank at Pearl Harbor.
Although Sheehan had given a DNA sample several years earlier, she was stunned to get the news in August that her brother had been found.
“I said, ‘Are you sure?’ ” she recalled. “It seemed so many years, and so unlikely.”
Jean and Grant, who was two years older, were tight-knit growing up in Cozad. Their mother, Hazel, died at age 24, when both were still babies. They were raised by their father, aunt and grandfather.
“He was a good all-around guy,” Sheehan said. “A little bit mischievous, maybe.”
He liked to fish and played sports. He was a halfback on the Cozad High School football team, in an era when halfbacks ran the offense. A Sept. 13, 1938, article in the local newspaper described Cook, a 160-pound senior, as having “shown great possibilities along the passing line. He is not only accurate but can pass good on the run.”
He graduated in 1939 and worked for a time in a local garage. He quit the following year and joined the Navy, Sheehan said. He was assigned to the Oklahoma, and Pearl Harbor.
In 1941, Sheehan left Cozad to attend nursing school in Denver. She heard the news of the Pearl Harbor attack after returning home from a Sunday movie matinee, and worried instantly about her brother. Later her family sent her a telegram with the news that her brother was missing.
“When I heard my brother was missing — just complete shock, so much sadness,” Sheehan said. “It was hard for us to believe that he really was gone.”
She stayed in Colorado to finish her schooling. Then she joined the Women’s Naval Reserves, called the WAVES. Her father was upset, until she reassured him that she wouldn’t be serving overseas.
“Knowing he allowed my brother to sign up weighed on him, I’m sure,” Sheehan said.
She never moved back to Cozad. Her father moved to California and died in the early 1950s.
Sheehan said she was sorry to miss her brother’s farewell. But her daughter plans to visit her in Florida for Memorial Day and show her the photos.
“He was very much loved,” she said. “It was wonderful to have a brother. And it was very hard to lose him.”
Two more newly identified USS Oklahoma sailors from Nebraska will be buried in the coming weeks, both in their hometowns. Joseph Maule, 18, will be buried June 20 in Bloomfield, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Gerald Clayton, 21, will be buried July 5 in Central City.
Honoring our heroes: A gallery of Nebraska veterans
Honoring our heroes: Nebraska veterans and their service.