GRAND FORKS — After nearly 80 years, Floyd Wells is coming home to North Dakota.
The remains of the Cavalier native and U.S. Navy crewman, who died in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, have been identified through DNA testing and will be returned to his family for burial at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery in Mandan, said Neal Martin of Grand Forks, whose wife, Ann, is Wells’ niece.
The ceremony is planned for Oct. 1.
“This is of historical significance,” said Martin. “I want people to remember his name.”
Floyd Arthur Wells enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1938, a few years after graduating from high school at Fairdale in northeast North Dakota.
In December 1941, he was one of five radio operators on the USS Arizona when it was attacked by Japanese aircraft, killing 1,177 crewmen, Martin said.
The battleship was struck by a bomb that penetrated its powder magazine, which caused a cataclysmic explosion and ignited a fire. The ship burned for two days in the aftermath of the attack.
President Franklin Roosevelt declared Dec. 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy” in his radio address to the nation shortly after the attack that thrust the United States into World War II.
Young man from Walsh County
Floyd Wells was the second child of Edna and Earl Wells’ children – four sons and a daughter. The youngest, Phyllis, was Ann Martin’s mother.
On that fateful Sunday morning in 1941, “she was coming downstairs for breakfast when she heard on the radio that there was an attack on Pearl Harbor,” Ann Martin said. Phyllis would have been 11 years old at the time. Her family was living in Fairdale, in northwestern Walsh County.
After the attack, the Wells family received a telegram stating their son was missing in action. In early 1942, they received another one stating he was presumed killed in action.
Floyd Wells was 24 years old.
“He never married,” Martin said. “He didn’t get to have a life.”
Martin, who has been seeking information about his wife’s uncle for years, found Wells' name on the muster roll of crewmen who were transferred from the USS Arizona to another Navy battleship after the attack.
“He was one of 15 people taken onto the USS Tennessee,” he said. “He was probably alive when he went to the Tennessee.”
Wells also was listed as being at the military base hospital. Martin presumed he was buried in a mass grave of the unknown in the Punchbowl National Cemetery at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.
“The government is exhuming them” and trying to identify and return the remains to their families, Martin said.
Neal and Ann Martin were the first family members to visit the WWII memorial in Hawaii, he said. He brought chalk and a fixative with him to take a rubbing of Wells’ name from the wall where the list of the deceased is engraved, he said.
“No one was going to keep me away from that memorial.”
In a cemetery in Cavalier, Wells also is memorialized on a gravestone engraved with the dates of his military service. His brother, Glenn Wells, ordered the stone from the Veterans Administration, Martin said.
Martin has contributed information on Floyd Wells for a book, “The Men of the USS Arizona,” by T.J. Cooper.
DNA reveals identity
Several years ago, Ann Martin and her mother, brother and two sisters each provided DNA samples, saliva, to the Department of Defense to help the government identify crewmen who died at Pearl Harbor. The department oversees lab testing that attempts to match the DNA of unidentified military personnel with that of living relatives.
Floyd Wells was officially accounted for June 17, but it took some time before relatives here were notified, Martin said.
“We found out in a roundabout way,” he said. “A professional genealogist who works for the Navy called me up and we talked.”
But more information was not forthcoming because, Martin learned later, the Navy’s policy is to inform only the oldest living relative of the deceased. In this case, that is an 83-year-old niece of Wells who lives in Washington state, but isn’t well-known by family members here, he said.
His mother-in-law, Phyllis Wells Reichert, did not live to see the results of that testing or to learn that her brother’s remains would be coming home. She died a couple of years ago.
“I wish my mom was here to see him,” Ann Martin said. “She and his brothers thought he went down with the ship.”
Floyd Wells’ other siblings also are deceased, she said.
Burial in military cemetery
Several family members, including Ann, her brother Terry Reichert of rural Hensel, and her sisters Karen Cataldi, Fargo, and Kristy Dornacker, Garrison, plan to attend the ceremony during which Floyd Wells will be laid to rest with full military honors at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery in Mandan.
Their cousin, Curtis Wells of Missouri, said his uncle’s remains will be flown, with military escort, to Fargo. Upon arrival, a ceremony with full military honors will be conducted and the casket will be processed in Fargo later that day, he said. The next day, the remains will be driven, with military escort, for the burial ceremony.
Curtis Wells will be present for all of it, he said. His father, Glenn Wells, applied for the service medals that Floyd Wells earned in WWII, he said.
He and his cousins have no memory of their Uncle Floyd.
“We didn’t know him,” Curtis said. “What we knew of him was what dad and my aunt said.”
On a wall in their home, the Martins are reminded of Floyd Wells by a professionally framed and matted shadow box that displays his photo, a radioman patch, and several medals, including the Purple Heart, the American Defense Service Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Service Medal with one bronze star, and the World War II Victory Medal.
As Ann Martin looked at the black-and-white picture of the uncle she never met, a smiling, bright-eyed young man of barely 20 looks back.
“He’s got curly hair, like Grandma Wells,” she said.
It’s “unbelievable” that DNA testing has made it possible for her family to have official proof, identifying his remains, and now to be able to finally lay him to rest in his home state, Ann said.
Curtis Wells has similar feelings.
“You know, when you think about it, it’s kind of amazing that some kind of record still exists after 80 years,” he said. “If they didn’t have (DNA testing), they would never know.”
Curtis is planning to bring additional military papers and information related to Floyd’s service for the Martins when he travels to North Dakota for the burial, he said. The return of Wells’ remains means “that he’s been identified and he’s coming home,” Curtis said.
“You hear the word ‘closure’ a lot of times, but the bottom line to me is, he is one of many who made the ultimate sacrifice in World War II and gave his life in defense of our country.”
To have his uncle buried in the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery “is very important to me and my siblings,” Curtis said. “The only regret I have is that his siblings – or at least one of his siblings – aren’t living to see their brother brought home.”
Although Floyd Wells could have been buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., “we decided that North Dakota was the best place. He’s a local boy and I think he deserves the local recognition,” he said.
“A lot of guys died over there, and they deserve recognition for that – to me, that’s so important. It’s very very important that he is finally laid to rest there.”
“To me, he is a hero,” he said, “and the people in North Dakota and other places shouldn’t forget that.”