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News | Aug. 9, 2017

DLA Joint Reserves leader brings closure to families of sailors killed at Pearl Harbor

By Chris Erbe

“On behalf of the president of the United States, the United States Navy and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.” 

These words, spoken by the presiding military official, form the core of a U.S. Navy funeral and conclude the most emotional part of the ceremony. Speaking the phrase while maintaining composure can be a challenge for any military officer, especially when presenting the American flag to a grieving family member. 

For Navy Reserve Capt. Daniel Pionk, chief of staff for the Defense Logistics Agency Joint Reserve Force, the challenge was even greater because of the historic nature of the service. Pionk served as the presiding official at the funeral of Fireman 1st Class Elmer Kerestes, killed in action aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma in the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. The ceremony took place July 29 in Holdingford, Minnesota, with elected officials, media representatives and hundreds of mourners paying their respects. 

Kerestes was 22 years old when the Japanese struck the Oklahoma with multiple torpedoes, capsizing the ship and killing 429 crewmen, including Kerestes. Only the U.S.S. Arizona suffered as many deaths. 

The military recovered Kerestes’ remains after the attack but could not identify him using existing technology. In the years following World War II, the military interred the remains of Kerestes and his fellow KIA shipmates as unknowns at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, situated in the “Punchbowl” crater near Honolulu. 

Decades later, DNA technology made the identification of long-deceased remains a possibility. In April 2015, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work issued a policy memorandum directing that the remains of unidentified sailors killed on the U.S.S. Oklahoma be disinterred for identification. Personnel from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency exhumed 35 remains for analysis and in February 2017 informed the Kerestes family members that their relative had been identified and would be sent home after 76 years. 

“It was an incredible experience to help bring a sense of closure to this family whose relative had been missing for so long,” Pionk said. 

This was the second time Pionk, a Minnesota native, performed honors for a Pearl Harbor fatality from the U.S.S. Oklahoma. He presented the American flag to the family of Fireman 3rd Class Glaydon Iverson at a Memorial Day service earlier this year at a ceremony in Emmons, Minnesota.

“I’ve experienced a lot in my 30 years with the Navy,” he said. “I’ve been all over the world, I’ve been privileged to command, but this experience has been the highest honor of my career.”