Oregon sailor killed in Pearl Harbor finally home

James Phipps of Rainier, 24, died on the USS Oklahoma during the attack on Pearl Harbor

Navy Seaman 2nd Class James Phipps in an undated photo provided by his family, October 14, 2016
Navy Seaman 2nd Class James Phipps in an undated photo provided by his family, October 14, 2016

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, KayLynn Olson’s grandmother wrote a letter to her brother, Navy Seaman 2nd Class James Phipps.

Phipps, 24 at the time, was assigned to the USS Oklahoma.

A letter written Dec. 9, 1941 to Navy Seaman 2nd Class James Phipps, October 14, 2016 (KOIN)“We can only hope that you’re safe and sound. Of course we probably won’t hear from you for ages now, but we can write to you until we hear otherwise. We still have no word of the exact damage to your ship and all we can do is wait and hope.”

His family would only hear that Phipps — who went by “Norm” — was missing and unaccounted for. They did not know he died in the attack.

“It really did affect them,” Olson said of Norm’s 2 sisters. “I think there’s a difference when you know what happened to someone and you know for certain that they have passed.”

Who James Phipps was

Navy Seaman 2nd Class James Phipps in an undated photo provided by his family, October 14, 2016Originally from Rainier, Oregon, Norm grew up in North Portland, the middle child with 2 sisters. He went Boise grade school and what was then called Benson Polytechnic School.

After he graduated, he joined the US Navy and was assigned to the USS Oklahoma.

His family knew he was on the ship, but it wasn’t wartime. Since Navy personnel were often on and off the ship, Norm’s family didn’t know if he was on board at the time of the attack on December 7, 1941.

“As time wore on I think they gradually realized that he probably was on the ship and lost,” Olson — who is Norm’s grand-niece — said.

Later, Norm’s mother received official notification he was missing since the Japanese attack. Newspaper reports said he was a well-known and likeable star in local, independent basketball circles.

The Navy side of things

Navy Seaman 2nd Class James Phipps was assigned to the USS Oklahoma, which was moored at Pearl Harbor. On December 7, 1941, the USS Oklahoma took multiple torpedo hits during the Japanese attack, killing 429 people on the ship.

Only the USS Arizona had more casualties in the attack.

For the next 2.5 years, the Navy recovered the remains of the crew members, who were interred in the Halawa and Nu’uanu Cemeteries.

Navy Seaman 2nd Class James Phipps of Rainier died Dec. 7, 1941 in the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was 24. (Courtesy: The Phipps family)But in 1947, the fallen service members were transferred to Schofield Barracks for identification. Only 35 members of the USS Oklahoma were identified, and the others were re-interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

When one of Norm’s sisters died in 2011, his name was in the obituary. A Navy genealogy person spotted his name and eventually contacted the family.

Fast forward to April 2015. The Defense Department exhumed the unidentified members of the USS Oklahoma for DNA analysis.

That DNA testing matched Phipps records with a nephew, niece and a grand-nephew, and dental comparisons were similar.

Coming home

On a rainy Friday, the remains of James N. Phipps arrived in Portland on a Delta flight to a hero’s welcome and full military honors.

“That was a very emotional experience, and I was overwhelmed by the support,” Olson told KOIN 6 News. “I can’t even explain it.”

“He gave his life for this country. I think it also is a sign of hope for other military families that men and women who fight and sacrifice are not forgotten, and that those sacrifices are appreciated.”

On Monday, Navy Seaman 2nd Class James Phipps was buried in Willamette National Cemetery.

It’s been nearly 75 years since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the United States into World War 2. That day, more than 2300 military personnel were killed, the first American casualties of the estimated 60 million people who died during the 6 years of the war.

After three-quarters of a century, James Phipps — Norm — is home.

The remains of Navy Seaman 2nd Class James Phipps, who died December 7, 1941 in the attack on Pearl Harbor, arrive in Portland, October 14, 2016 (Courtesy: The Phipps family)