ALBANY, N.Y. — Alfred Wells wasn't supposed to be on board the USS Oklahoma the morning the Japanese launched their surprise attack on U.S. warships and military bases in Hawaii.
By the time the bombing was over, the Oklahoma had capsized at its berth in Pearl Harbor, entombing the bodies of more than 400 servicemen, including Wells, who was standing watch on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, in place of another sailor who wanted to go ashore for the day.
This weekend, nearly 75 years after he was killed in the attack that drew the United States into World War II, Wells' remains will be laid to rest in a veterans' cemetery in his upstate New York hometown. Despite the passing of the decades and the deaths of most of his immediate family, Wells wasn't forgotten by his relatives.
"His name never left the lips of the family," said the sailor's 78-year-old nephew, Wayne Konseck, whose mother was one of Wells' five sisters
Japanese planes hit the Oklahoma with multiple torpedoes, causing the battleship to capsize quickly. Thirty-two men were rescued via holes cut through the hull, but 14 Marines and 415 sailors were killed. The Navy spent 2½ years recovering remains from the ship, but the military wasn't able to identify most of them, and buried hundreds as "unknowns" in a Honolulu cemetery.
Last year, the Pentagon's Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency began digging up their remains, saying advances in forensic science and technology have made identification more feasible. DPAA announced last week that Wells' remains had been identified using DNA samples provided by a cousin and other evidence. Of the 388 Oklahoma crewmembers remains disinterred in 2015, a total of 28 have been identified, according to the DPAA.
News of Wells' identification finally brought a sense of relief for his family, which includes just two surviving sisters among the eight Wells children who grew up in Syracuse. Alfred, the oldest, was just 17 when he joined the Navy in 1927, serving aboard the USS Arizona and rising to the rank of machinist's mate first class. He left the Navy in March 1941, bought a house in Southern California for his wife and two young daughters and looked for work. Unable to find a job, he re-enlisted five months later and was assigned to the Oklahoma.
Wells, 32, agreed to swap places with another sailor who was supposed to stand watch on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, according to accounts family members passed along to Konseck, who was three years old when his uncle died.
Konseck, a retiree living near Syracuse and a Navy veteran himself, believes his uncle would have been at his duty station in the Oklahoma's engine room when the attack began. Of the 21 U.S. vessels sunk or damaged, only Wells' former ship, the Arizona with 1,177 killed, lost more crewmembers than the Oklahoma.
Wells' wife and daughters have died, as have five of his seven siblings.
Konseck will be at the Syracuse airport when his uncle's remains arrive Friday, a day before Wells' funeral and burial at a veterans' cemetery in Syracuse. Konseck will be joined by Wells' surviving sisters, Mary Lou Schmeltzer, 89, and Virginia Rhodes, 91, who live outside of Buffalo and Syracuse, respectively.
For Konseck, who was inspired by his uncle's memory to also join the Navy at 17, it's a bittersweet end to a beloved relative's long overdue homecoming.
"I didn't think I'd live this long to see something like this coming," Konseck said.