“Illinois veterans’ remains finally come home from Pearl Harbor after the Navy identifies them using DNA”
By Robert McCoppin Chicago Tribune • Dec 07, 2022
In a cemetery amid the cornfields of downstate Illinois last month, a military honor guard fired shots in salute before the remains of World War II veteran Keith Tipsword was lowered into the ground. Tipsword, a machinist’s mate, was 22 when he died in the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.
In the wake of the attack, his body had never been identified, and was initially listed as missing in action, until the Navy recently identified his remains through DNA. His sister, who was 5 years old when he died, and is now 86, vaguely remembers a man in uniform who visited their home in tiny Moccasin, Illinois, her son Greg Sapp said. “My mom said their mother always had an expectation the door would open and Keith would be there,” Sapp said. “She never thought he wouldn’t come home. Well, now he finally has.”
With his burial in November, Tipsword is among dozens of Pearl Harbor veterans who have been identified and brought home to be reburied with loved ones. Through new DNA techniques, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has been able to sort through remains that were long considered unidentifiable. When Japan mounted the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, Tipsword’s ship, the USS West Virginia, was hit by torpedoes and bombs and sunk. The explosions rendered many of the victims impossible to name. They were buried in mass graves and labeled as “unknown” in a cemetery located in a crater known as the Punchbowl on the island of Oahu. In 2015, the federal government began matching the remains to DNA from family members of service members who were missing or killed in action. The program has identified hundreds of missing service members from around the world who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Tipsword’s family lived in tiny Moccasin in Effingham County. Their house was just a mile from the cemetery, but is long gone, with only a silo remaining. The family still has a salt-and-pepper shaker set that Tipsword made aboard his ship and brought home to his mother while visiting. The Patriot Guard motorcycle group escorted Tipsword’s casket from a military base in the St. Louis area to Effingham, with firetrucks on overpasses and bystanders saluting, Sapp said. Many members of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion and Disabled American Veterans attended. Sailors folded the American flag on the casket and presented it to Tipsword’s sister. “It was pretty moving,” said Sapp, a news director for local radio stations. Tipsword wasn’t the only Illinois veteran identified through DNA.
Beneath an overcast sky streaked with sleet, and marked by the somber reverence of a burial with full military honors, an overwhelming sense of closure – and even joyous celebration – filled the air as all that remained of Keith Tipsword was laid to rest in the central Illinois countryside where he grew up long ago. Tipsword died in the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. His remains were identified over the summer using DNA. He was buried in Moccasin Cemetery near Beecher City, Illinois, on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. The funeral service began at the Johnson Funeral Home in Effingham, where a large group of Tipsword’s family, friends and people from all around gathered to pay their respects. One of Tipsword’s relatives, Jerry White, began by thanking the crowd for everything they’ve done to honor and ensure the return of Tipsword. “You’re all part of this celebration,” White said. White also took a moment to acknowledge Tipsword’s sister, Dalyne Sapp, who had spent much of her life unsure what happened to her older brother. Now 86, she’d been just a child when he died at age 27, a Machinist’s Mate 1st Class aboard the USS West Virginia. “It’s wonderful,” she said. “It warms my heart for sure.”
Dalyne Sapp learned over the summer that DNA samples she submitted five years ago with her sister, Betty Fae Yocum of Greenup, showed a relationship to DNA of remains examined by the Navy. Yocum died three years ago. “During efforts to salvage the USS West Virginia [shortly after the attack], Navy personnel recovered the remains of the deceased crewmen, representing at least 66 individuals,” the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) said in a press release. “Those who could not be identified, including Tipsword, were interred as unknowns at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu.” “From June through October 2017, DPAA, in cooperation with cemetery officials, disinterred 35 caskets reported to be associated with the USS West Virginia from the Punchbowl and transferred the remains to the DPAA laboratory,” the release said. “To identify Tipsword’s remains, scientists from DPAA used dental and anthropological analysis. Additionally, scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA analysis.” Another relative, Brett Sapp, discussed the emotional toll Tipsword’s disappearance had on those who were closest to him. “After he was first listed as missing in action, his family had a glimmer of hope,” Brett Sapp said. “She just hung on to that hope until the very end of her life,” he said of Tipsword’s mother. Brett Sapp said Tipsword’s fiancee, Nell Nelson – known to the family as “Little Nelly Nelson” – struggled her whole life because of Keith’s disappearance. “‘As long as I don’t hear that he’s gone, I have a little more hope every day,’” he said, roughly quoting Nelson.
At the Nov. 15 funeral service, several members of the Navy acted as pallbearers. In military fashion, they folded the American flag draped over his coffin and presented it to Tipsword’s family, particularly Tipsword’s sister, Dalyne Sapp. The flag was presented to the family by Chaplain Andy Richards of the US Navy. Richards also spoke of the great significance of Tipsword’s life and his tragic death in combat. “His death would lead a nation into war,” Richards said. “In 1936, he enlisted in the middle of the Great Depression.”
In previous interviews with the Effingham Daily News, his relatives described Tipsword as a bright young man, a straight-A student who enjoyed writing. But coming of age during the Great Depression, he needed to learn a trade, so he enlisted. After serving four years and having been promoted to Machinist’s Mate 1st Class, Tipsword was in a two-year extension at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which was over within about 90 minutes, leaving 2,403 Americans killed and 1,178 wounded. Additionally, 21 ships had been sunk or significantly damaged and, of the 402 U.S. aircraft at Pearl Harbor, 188 were destroyed and 159 were damaged. Tipsword’s ship sustained multiple torpedo hits, but timely counter-flooding measures taken by the crew prevented it from capsizing, and it came to rest on the shallow harbor floor, according to DPAA. The attack left 106 West Virginia crewmen dead, including Tipsword. He and his shipmates were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.
Tipsword’s cousin, Kenny Tipsword of Edgewood, was thankful for the closure that the identification brings. “It’s been 81 years,” he said in an interview after the family learned that the sailor had been identified. “It’s sad enough when a person dies in defense of our country. And then to not know for sure where his remain are. … But now the sailor is home from the sea.”
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for missing personnel from past conflicts to their families and the nation. Within this mission, the agency searches for missing personnel from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Gulf Wars, and other recent conflicts. Its research and operational missions include coordination with hundreds of countries and municipalities around the world. More than 81,500 Americans remain missing from WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War and the Gulf Wars/other conflicts. Out of the more than 81,500 missing, 75% of the losses are located in the Indo-Pacific, and over 41,000 of the missing are presumed lost at sea.
For additional information on the Defense Department’s mission to account for Americans who went missing while serving our country, visit the DPAA website at dpaa.mil or find it on social media at facebook.com/dodpaa