Springfield Medal of Honor recipient will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery

Ward posthumously received the Medal of Honor for heroism on Dec. 7, 1941

Springfield native Seaman 1st Class James Richard Ward will be buried with the thanks of a grateful nation in Arlington National Cemetery on Dec. 21, the U.S. Navy recently said.

Ward’s story is familiar to many in Springfield.

James Richard (also called “Dick”) Ward, was killed in the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. He posthumously received the Medal of Honor in 1942.

“Certainly with his actions, he deserved to be in hallowed ground,” said Richard Hanna, 67, Ward’s nephew.

“I‘d been hoping to hear that he would eventually receive a proper burial,” said Natalie Fritz, archivist and collections director with the Clark County Historical Society. “I’m very happy to hear that this will finally happen.”

Located just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., Arlington is the final resting place for some 400,000 men and women who had been active-duty service members or veterans, along with family members, in some cases.

Ward was born in Springfield on Sept. 10, 1921. He graduated in 1939 from Springfield High School, enlisting in the Navy at Cincinnati, on Nov. 25, 1940. After basic training he reported to the battleship USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor.

It was at Pearl Harbor that Ward’s destiny and national history came together.

In the attack against Pearl Harbor by the Japanese fleet on Dec. 7, 1941 — 82 years ago — the Oklahoma took torpedoes and began capsizing. An order was given to abandon ship, but Ward remained in a turret holding a flashlight so that fellow sailors could escape the sinking ship, sacrificing his life.

For his heroism, he posthumously received the Medal of Honor, in March 1942.

Hanna, Ward’s nephew, is a Gainesville, Fla. resident. He was born in Springfield and lived there for two years before his family left Ohio.

Hanna said Ward’s death was “pretty devastating” for his family. Hanna’s mother was Ward’s sister.

Ward was 20 when he died, one of 429 crew men who met similar fates aboard the Oklahoma.

“They spoke of him some, but not a great deal,” Hanna recalled in an interview. “My mom spoke about him some. But it was pretty traumatic and devastating for the family.”

“How many 20-year-olds — he was barely 20 — would perform at that high a level?” he asked.

The family was well aware of how he died, Hanna said, but for decades, Ward’s remains had not been identified.

When the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency was able to identify Ward’s remains in 2021, it was “pretty amazing,” he said.

“He was listed as one of the killed in action, the missing,” he said. “They recovered a lot in the years following from the Oklahoma. They recovered a lot of remains. And they were placed in several large graves out in Hawaii.”

“You can imagine what the process was like with the advent of technology, DNA processing,” he added.

Sean Everette, a spokesman for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, said Ward was identified two years ago in the agency’s USS Oklahoma project, a sweeping effort to match identities to the many physical remains recovered from that ship. The global pandemic and other matters delayed Ward’s identification, he said.

In 2009, the decision was made to request DNA samples from every family of unknowns recovered from the Oklahoma.

After World War II, 394 men had been buried as unknowns from the ship. Since 2003, 362 of those have been identified, Everette said.

Ward was identified in August 2021, thanks in part to a DNA sample from a family member.

“It’s a pretty cool thing to be able to talk about on a regular basis,” Everett said of the agency’s work.

“We do typically go to greater lengths than many of the other countries,” in identifying unknown soldiers, sailors, Marines and Airmen, he said. “Not very many countries have fought all over the world.”

Richard Hanna said his mother named him after her brother.

“I’m incredibly proud,” he said. “I’ve always been proud.”

The remains of William “Billy” Welch — another young Springfield native killed at Pearl Harbor — were returned in 2016, Fritz said.

“It’s wonderful to learn that the same will happen for Dick Ward,” Fritz said, referring to Ward’s identification and final disposition. “Neither of them has been forgotten and both are honored and remembered each year. This final step is a big deal.”

“The DPAA does good work making sure that no one who served and was lost is forgotten,” she said. “There are so many still missing, It’s good to know that they continue their work to bring peace of mind to families, no matter how long it may take.”

In 1943 the destroyer escort USS J. Richard Ward was named in Ward’s honor. A cenotaph was placed for him in Ferncliff Cemetery, and Ward was honored as a 2015 recipient of the Springfield High School Alumni of Distinction Award.

Hanna said he wrestled with the question of where to have Ward buried. He finally felt Arlington was the best choice.

“A lot of thought went into that because he’s from Springfield,” he said. “We’re from Springfield. I know Springfield holds him in very high regard.”

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