After 77 years, a sailor is home

John Thompson • Dec 6, 2018 at 11:33 PM

ELIZABETHTON —It is now 77 years since the attack on Pearl Harbor, but families still remember and mourn their loved ones who died on that day.

But with the advances of science, some families have had the satisfaction of seeing their lost family member finally identified and returned home.

That was the case for the family of W. Vane Campbell this year. The seaman 2nd class was assigned to the USS Oklahoma on the day she was torpedoed by planes from the Japanese carriers Akagi and Kaga. The battleship capsized while moored along Battleship Row on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor.

Details of Campbell’s early life are drawn from a beautiful eulogy presented by nieces Jeanna Shields and Kathy Clifton on the day he was finally laid to rest in Tennessee soil. They said their Uncle Vane was the first born child of John and Mattie Campbell. He was born on June 16, 1921. The couple had been married for five years before their first child arrived. They lived in a home on Short Coal Chute Road in the Gap Creek Community. Vane would soon have brothers and sisters; Selba, Alma Ruth, Gene, Max and Lewis.

The entire family attended Big Spring Church of Christ. They sang in church and Vane played the violin. The children went to Gap Creek Elementary School and Happy Valley High School.

In their eulogy, Clifton and Shields said “We know from the stories told to us that Vane liked cars and motorcycles, was a sharp dresser and even had a pair of blue suede shoes.”

Campbell was 20 years old when he died. He entered the Navy at the United States Naval Training Station in Norfolk on July 7, 1940. After his training, he joined the Oklahoma on Oct. 9, 1940. Less than a month later he was promoted to seaman, 2nd class.

Knowing his interest in being a sharp dresser, his parents mailed him a box containing a pair of white patent leather shoes. From the time of year the package was mailed, it was probably meant to be a 1941 Christmas present. Campbell did not live to open the box from his family.

Just over two weeks before Christmas, the Oklahoma would die, along with 429 members of her crew.

Although Shields and Clifton were not born yet, they have heard the family memories of Dec. 7, 1941: “Vane’s brother, Gene, remembered the family leaving the morning church service and heard news of the bombing in Hawaii. Gene said that he felt like he saw his father’s hair turn gray that day. The family rushed home in order to listen to the radio to get more details. Unfortunately, the family did not get confirmation of Vane’s death until the second week of January, which came in the form of a telegram. Our grandparents grieved over the years of the death of their son, but their strong Christian faith pulled them through.”

Ironically, after the war, Vane’s name would be in the newspapers. As a commemoration on Navy Day in 1948, a plane was going to drop flowers over the spot where the Oklahoma had capsized. Vane’s mother had picked a daisy, wrapped in in wax paper and mailed it so that it could be a part of the drop. She sent the flower with a note: “In loving memory of our son — William Vane Campbell — killed December 7 on ship USS Oklahoma.”

The letter came to the attention of Navy Chaplain Lt. Commander John H. Shilling. Unfortunately, her letter had arrived too late for the regular Navy Day floral ceremony, but Shilling took matters into his own hands. He took the single daisy to Navy pilot Ensign N.J. Rudel. He flew the flower to the spot where the Oklahoma had been and dropped the single daisy at 9 a.m. on Navy Day.

As the years rolled on, the Campbell family never forgot Vane and what happened at Pearl Harbor. There were occasional ceremonies on Pearl Harbor Day when the family could see Vane’s sacrifice honored. One important one took place at Mountain Home in 2015.

But in 2018 the family received the good news that the DNA samples they had provided had resulted in the identification of their missing family member.

Shields said the identification did even more. Since most of the remains were intact, the family learned that Vane probably died of a head injury, probably from one of the explosions on the ship. He must have died instantly and did not drown.

When the long awaited day of his return finally arrived, a resplendent Naval escort carried the remains of William Vane Campbell back from Pearl Harbor to be reunited with his mother and father at Happy Valley Memorial Cemetery.

The sailor was home at last.

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