During the attack on Pearl Harbor Kirby Stapleton was killed; decades later he will be laid to rest with his brother, Delbert.
Decades after Kirby Stapleton died during the attack on Pearl Harbor, he will be laid to rest with his younger brother and shipmate, Delbert.
The two brothers heroically served their country aboard the USS Oklahoma during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. During the attack Kirby was killed. Delbert survived and continued to serve his country through the remainder of the war.
Robert Stapleton, Delbert’s son, said recently his uncles remains were identified through DNA testing.
“The whole story is quite interesting,” Robert said recently from his home in California. “Two brothers served on the same ship, as happened so many times. One survived and one did not.”
On Dec. 7, 1941, Kirby was assigned to the battleship USS Oklahoma, the same ship his younger brother was serving on, which was moored at Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, when the ship was attacked by Japanese aircraft on Dec. 7, 1941. The USS Oklahoma sustained multiple torpedo hits, which caused it to quickly capsize. The attack on the ship resulted in the deaths of 429 crewmen, including Kirby.
Delbert survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, Robert said because he happened to be on the deck of the USS Oklahoma when the attack began and he and fellow service members were able to man their duty stations and begin to return fire on the Japanese airplanes.
“My father (Delbert) survived and was immediately put out to sea on another ship - and served through the end of war and returned to Missouri,” Robert said. “Dad did not talk about the war until I was in college. He did describe to me the events of that day. The family never really had any information about Kirby - his body was not discovered. In fact he was missing for two years until the Navy presumed him dead.”
From December 1941 to June 1944, Navy personnel recovered the remains of the deceased crew, which were subsequently interred in the Halawa and Nu'uanu Cemeteries.
In September 1947, tasked with recovering and identifying fallen U.S. personnel in the Pacific Theater, members of the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) disinterred the remains of U.S. casualties from the two cemeteries and transferred them to the Central Identification
Laboratory at Schofield Barracks. The laboratory staff was only able to confirm the identifications of 35 men from the USS Oklahoma at that time using samples of DNA form the soldiers maternal family members. The AGRS subsequently buried the unidentified remains in 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (NMCP), known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu. In October 1949, a military board classified those who could not be identified as non-recoverable, including Kirby.
After returning home from the war, Delbert used the GI Bill to attend the University of Missouri, where he earned a degree in engineering.
“Back in those days when you wanted to use the GI Bill, you received the funds in cash but had to go to a local military office to do so,” Robert said.
It was at the office that Delbert met his future wife, Naomi Ruth Halferty. The two were later married and Delbert adopted her three children and went onto have three children of their own.
While his father did not speak much about the war until Robert was older, he knew his father’s service was something he was proud of, and in turn he was proud of Kirby;’s service too.
“Kirby actually joined the Navy and asked to be placed on the USS Oklahoma because that is where his younger brother already was,’ he recalled. “Back in those days they were very poor and joining the service - the Navy - gave them an opportunity to see the world and get out of the poverty that so many faced. The war, and my father’s service ultimately led my father to all he did later in life. Graduating college, meeting my mother, this wonderful life he lived in California.”
In April 2015, the Deputy Secretary of Defense issued a policy memorandum directing the disinterment of unknowns associated with the USS Oklahoma. On June 15, 2015, DPAA personnel began exhuming the remains from the Punchbowl for analysis.
To identify Stapleton's remains, scientists from DPAA and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA analysis, dental and anthropological analysis, as well as circumstantial evidence.
Just a few weeks ago, Robert and his family were notified of the positive identification of Kirby’s remains, after the Navy used a sample of a maternal family members DNA to identify his remains.
“It is quite a process they went through,” Robert said. “The Navy, The Department of Defense, they really have handled this very well and have been highly respectful very diligent and organized and quite touched by that. They are going to extraordinary lengths to do something very meaningful.”
The Navy met with the family and briefed them on what information was available about Kirby and the process they would have to go through to obtain Kirby’s remains and the burial process, which robert noted will be different for their family since they wish to have Kirby interred with Delbert, who is already buried in a national cemetery.
Since the information the family has on Kirby is limited, Robert has done research of his own and found an account of Kirby’s death, in a book, written by a fellow soldier who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. “Trapped at Pearl Harbor, escape from the Battleship Oklahoma. by Stephen Bower Young, is a narrative of the attack and the men of the Number 4 Gun Turret, including Kirby,” Robert said. “It describes his death specifically. It’s a gripping and very unusual tale.”
Delbert passed away in 2004, and Robert said he feels one of his father’s regrets was not knowing where Kirby was.
“They really didn't know very much at all for years,” Robert said. “I think that was one of my father’s biggest regrets, just not knowing. Had it been for different circumstances it could have been him and not Kirby that they were looking for, he realized that. It was circumstances, it was the war that lead to so many great things, but also the loss of his brother, his shipmate.”
Delbert is buried in the Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, Calif., and plans are to have Kirby buried with his brother and Robert is confident the Navy will work hard to ensure it will happen for one of their fallen soldiers.
“I think it is kind of fitting, they were brothers, then shipmates and now will get to be buried together, home together at last,” Robert said. “I think this is something they both would have wanted.”