It's a homecoming nearly 80 years in the making.
On December 7, 1941, Floyd Dee Helton of Somerset was serving as Navy Seaman 2nd Class on the USS Oklahoma when the battleship, moored at Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, was among those attacked by Japanese aircraft -- ushering in the United States' entry into World War II.
The USS Oklahoma sustained multiple torpedo hits, causing it to capsize and resulting in the deaths of 429 crewmen -- SEA2 Helton included. He was just 18.
Up until June 1944, Navy personnel worked to recover the remains of the deceased, which were subsequently interred in the Halawa and Nu'uanu Cemeteries.
In September 1947, tasked with recovering and identifying fallen U.S. personnel in the Pacific Theater, members of the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) disinterred the remains of U.S. casualties from the two Hawaiian cemeteries and transferred them to the Central Identification Laboratory at Schofield Barracks. At that time, the laboratory was only able to confirm the identities of 35 men from the USS Oklahoma. The AGRS subsequently buried the unidentified remains in 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (NMCP), known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu. In October 1949, a military board classified those who could not be identified as non-recoverable, including Floyd Helton.
Years later the Navy contacted Helton's surviving family members, according to niece Vicki Easley, with half-brother Carrol D. Helton and his son submitting DNA samples in hopes of identifying their loved one.
Between June and November 2015, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) exhumed the USS Oklahoma Unknowns from the Punchbowl for analysis.
To identify Helton's remains, scientists from DPAA performed dental and anthropological analysis while scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used Y chromosome DNA (Y-STR) and autosomal DNA (auSTR) analysis.
The military was finally able to identify the Pulaski sailor on April 23, 2020, in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic that prevented officials from briefing the family in person.
With that finally accomplished, plans are underway to transport SEA2 Helton from Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska to Sloans Valley, where on Saturday he'll be buried with full military honors next to his father, Herbert D. Helton, and near both his grandfathers.
Governor Andy Beshear will order flags lowered to half-staff in honor of Seaman 2nd Class Helton on the day of his interment.
"For almost 80 years, families of the sailors who died on the Oklahoma could mourn their sons and fathers, brothers and husbands only at a distance," Gov. Beshear stated. "But thanks to the meticulous, persistent work of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, Kentucky sailors are finally coming home."
Pulaski Funeral Home has been working with the family and military personnel on Helton's services.
"We found out about a year ago, shortly after his remains were identified," funeral director Tyler Hibbard said. "We feel honored that the family has entrusted us with that care."
There will be two opportunities for the public to pay their respects.
According to funeral director Tyler Hibbard, Helton's remains are scheduled to be met at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport at 5:20 p.m. Thursday. Escorted by first responders (including the Somerset-Pulaski Special Response Team, Kentucky State Police and local fire departments), military units (including the Naval Honor Guard) and Rolling Thunder, the procession will travel down I-75 to Ky. 461, then to East Ky. 80 where it will proceed westbound to US 27, then north to Pulaski Funeral Home.
Those wishing to pay their respects locally are welcome to park along the route, particularly along Ky. 80 where a flag display is planned, so long as they keep clear of intersections. Hibbard expects the procession to arrive in Somerset around 8 p.m. depending on flight arrival and other travel factors.
On Saturday, the procession -- also escorted and with flag displays planned -- will depart from Pulaski County Funeral Home at 11:30 a.m. It will first travel south on US 27, then out Ky. 80 (old Cumberland Parkway) to Ky. 914 and back onto US 27 south to Sloans Valley Cemetery.
"If folks want to come out and watch the procession," Hibbard said, "it would be great to see them along the route showing their support. Probably the best place to see it would be from Beacon Hill south toward Burnside."
Hibbard noted how long Helton's family has waited to be able to officially say goodbye. "Come December, it will be 80 years since this man was lost and his family's not really had answers," he said. "For us to be a part of that and to actually bring someone home, it's very humbling to help give Mr. Helton's family peace of mind in knowing his final resting place."