Paw Paw native’s body identified 80 years after Pearl Harbor attack

Van Buren County

PAW PAW, Mich. (WOOD) — Paw Paw native Wilbur F. Ballance died while serving on the USS Oklahoma when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Ballance was buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, but his body was unidentified.

His nephews Lee and Bob Ballance only knew how to commemorate their uncle through pictures. They were born after Wilbur died.

“Until we went through a scrapbook, we didn’t know his work and what he was doing in the service,” said Lee Ballance, who lives in California. “We got his records and it said he joined to learn a trade.”

Bob Ballance, who resides in New Mexico, cherishes Wilbur Ballance’s military medals that were passed down to him by his father, Lewis.

“Now, hanging in my home and I’ll pass down to my son because he’s another Ballance,” Bob Ballance said.

The brothers say they didn’t hear many stories about their uncle while growing up.

“Occasional comments from grandmother about how terrible it was he was lost,” Lee Ballance said. “But really, another thing it exposes, I don’t really remember anybody talking about him much ever.”

Wilbur Ballance, a 1939 graduate of Paw Paw High School, is giving his nephews something to talk about 80 years after his death. His remains were recently identified, thanks to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

“Just kind of shocking, Lee Ballance said. “Something you never really expected to happen.”

The agency began to exhume unaccounted bodies from the ship for analysis in 2015. About a year ago, the agency reached out to the brothers to see if they would take part in the process.

“Had a friend help me swab my mouth and we sent it in,” Bob Ballance said.

In March, they received the news they were hoping to hear.

“Astonishing, when we got word — they had identified uncle Wilbur and identified significant portions of his skeleton,” Bob Ballance said. “(They) were all attributed to him.”

Lee Ballance said the process moved unexpectedly.

“Part of that was profound sense of respect and dedication for Navy personnel and contractors who worked on this,” he said.

Wilbur Ballance will be buried once again at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific on Dec. 3. The Ballance brothers plan to attend the service.

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