James Richard Ward
When the USS Oklahoma was struck at point blank range by a Japanese torpedo in the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, it instantly began to list. A minute later, two more torpedoes slammed into the 27,000-ton battleship, followed by at least two more. The crew, which included more than 1,200 men, knew immediately that their ship was doomed.
Hundreds of sailors dove overboard or climbed up the hull during the 12 minutes it took for the battleship to roll onto its side in the shallow water. Hundreds more inside the hull were plunged into darkness as their world keeled over. Orders were given to abandon ship.
U.S. Navy Seaman 1st Class James Richard Ward, 20, of Springfield, Ohio, was a gun crew member in a 14” gun turret. He located a flashlight, remained at his post and provided a life-saving beam of light into the darkened interior to show the way out as fellow sailors struggled to escape from inside the doomed battleship.
Ward himself failed to make it to safety, one of 429 men who died aboard the Oklahoma that fateful day. The remains of more than 400 of those servicemen were recovered, but virtually none could be identified, and the vast majority were interred in common graves marked “unknown” at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in the Punchbowl on Oahu. Their names were etched onto marble slabs at the cemetery’s Courts of the Missing.
A total of 16 servicemen ranging in rank from seaman to rear admiral were awarded Medals of Honor related to events at Pearl Harbor; 11 of them perished in the attack, Ward among them. His medal was presented in March 1942 and mailed to his parents in Springfield along with a letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox.
“When it was seen that the U.S.S. Oklahoma was going to capsize and the order was given to abandon ship, Ward remained in a turret holding a flashlight so the remainder of the turret crew could see to escape, thereby sacrificing his own life.”
The family did not have the comfort of an identified grave, Ward’s remains among those many unknowns. A form of physical tribute came with the launch of destroyer escort USS J. Richard Ward (DE-243) in July 1943, which supported three Atlantic convoy voyages in support of the Allied war effort before joining a hunter-killer group in search of German submarines.
In 2003, the federal Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) began working to identify the remains of some of the unknown Oklahoma sailors. Analysis revealed a single disinterred casket to contain the partial remains of nearly 100 individuals, six of whom could be positively pinpointed. In 2015, advancing technology allowed for an ambitious vision: all Oklahoma remains would be exhumed from the Punchbowl and DNA tested for identification using the latest technology. This process examined 13,000 bones and gradually pinpointed the identities of the 388 individuals unaccounted for as of that time.
Over the next six years, a further 355 sailors and marines were individually identified. In October 2021, a group of 33 remains that were unable to be definitively matched to individuals were accounted for as a group; they were reinterred in the national cemetery on December 7, the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
On February 22, 2022, DPAA announced that on August 19, 2021, it had positively identified Ward’s remains and subsequently notified his family. He was among the final 10 sets of remains who could be individually pinpointed. A rosette will be added alongside his name in the Courts of the Missing, signifying that he has been accounted for.