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Pearl Harbor sailor from Nelson County laid to rest 80 years later

Chief Pharmacist's Mate James Cheshire was a sailor from New Hope, Kentucky, aboard the USS Oklahoma, when he died during the attacks on Dec. 7, 1941.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A Nelson County native was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery Friday, more than 80 years after his death.

Chief Pharmacist's Mate James Cheshire was a sailor from New Hope, Kentucky, aboard the USS Oklahoma, when he died during the attack on Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941. However, his remains weren't identified until about a year ago, when new DNA technology made the connection.

"I've been to Arlington before and just being there is moving, just in awe of the people who are buried there and what they represent," Betty Tucker said. She was one of dozens of family members in Arlington for the hometown hero's farewell.

Cheshire was Tucker's great uncle, known as Tom to most, but she never knew he existed until the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency exhumed the unidentified crew members from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific for anthropological analysis. 'The USS Oklahoma Project' began the process in 2015. Of the 429 killed on the ship, 394 had been buried as unknown persons. As of Sept. 15, 2021, 346 had been identified. Read more about the process of salvaging the Oklahoma here.

Cheshire joined the U.S. navy when he was 18 and made a career of it for the next 22 years.

Credit: Cheshire Family

"He'd just reupped in 1940. So, had he chosen not to continue his career, he would not have been on board that fateful day," Tucker said. 

As a Pharmacist's Mate, Tucker says he would've been down in the medical station on the lower decks, where he rendered aid to the injured, serving in the ship's sick bay and at naval hospitals.

It's why Tucker says the odds were against him ever escaping the Japanese torpedo attacks. The ship was hit at least 5 times and capsized within 12 minutes. Survivors jumped off the ship into burning, oil-coated water or crawled across mooring lines that connected the Oklahoma and the battleship USS Maryland.

"He wouldn't have had a chance to get out," she said.

The Oklahoma rolled over and sank to the harbor bottom, with many of the men trapped in the lower decks, banging on steel walls until they took their last breaths.

"Not only heart wrenching for those men, but those above the surface who could hear that banging and not do anything about it. I mean, how hard was that to endure?" Tucker said.

Credit: Naval History and Heritage Command

The last communication from Cheshire was a letter he wrote to his son just days before the attack. 

 "Of course they knew negotiations with the Japanese were stalling and in retrospect, they wondered he didn't fear something like this was going to happen," Tucker said.

In the letter, Cheshire asked about his son's stamp collection and said he was sending some his way, hoping he could share them 'amicably' with his sister. He reminded him how to take care of his new typewriter, and mentioned what a 'load off his mind' it was that 'Mommie' was handling all the Christmas presents that year. 

He ended the letter with, 'Bye bye for now, and be a good boy. Love, Dad.' 

Four days later, Cheshire was gone. Two of his cousins, also from Nelson County, who were aboard the USS Arizona also perished in the attacks.

Credit: Cheshire Family
This is the letter James Cheshire wrote to his son just 4 days before his death on the USS Oklahoma. Letters to his wife and daughter were lost over the years.

With more than 1,200 men on board the Oklahoma, 429 went down with the ship. Two years later, it was righted and the bodies inside were recovered. While personal items were sent home to families, the majority of the remains couldn't be identified.

"That's all they'd received until the magic of DNA," Tucker said.

Using samples from several family members, Cheshire was finally headed to his final resting place.

"These guys that died in World War II, as they say, it's the greatest generation. He deserves all the honor he gets and I'm happy to be a part of it," Tucker said.

James Thomas Cheshire
Birthplace: New Hope, Kentucky
Date: May 24, 1901
Hometown: New Hope, Kentucky
(Wife, children 1941 residence: San Diego)
Enlisted: Louisville, KY
Date: May 28, 1919
Rank/Rating: Chief
Pharmacist's Mate (CPhM)

Awards and Decorations*
Purple Heart Medal
Combat Action Ribbon
Good Conduct Medal
American Defense Service Medal (with Fleet Clasp)
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (with Bronze Star)
American Campaign Medal
World War II Victory Medal

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