For more than a half-century, a simple headstone beneath a towering shade tree in the Parkdale Cemetery has held a place for George Anderson Coke Jr.
An Arlington High School graduate and eager Navy enlistee, Coke was killed in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. But while other boys were coming home in flag-draped caskets, Coke’s family knew only that he was buried in a mass grave in Hawaii alongside other crewmen of the USS Oklahoma whose remains had not been identified.
Now, 76 years later, Coke is coming home.
The Arlington Historical Society, family members and the First United Methodist Church have arranged a public memorial service with full military honors for Coke on Saturday.
He will be laid to rest next to his father, George A. “Dutch” Coke Sr., who preceded him in death, and his mother, Julina Jane Tomlin Coke, who relatives believe is the person who bought and placed her son’s headstone there. She then went to her own grave next to it in 1960, heartbroken, they said.
It’s a wonderful reminder of how horrible war is.
Geraldine Mills, executive director of the Arlington Historical Society, about the memorial service
“It’s a wonderful reminder of how horrible war is,” Geraldine Mills, executive director of the historical society, said of the memorial service. But she added, “It just gives you goose bumps that after all this time, he will be back in the hometown he loved and [with] the people he loved. I think it is a fitting conclusion.”
Going to war
Most relatives and others today know of Coke only through family lore. Doland Maner, 94, is among a handful who knew him directly, though he was a year ahead of Coke in school and didn’t hang out with him.
“We weren’t buddies,” Maner said. “But he was an all-American boy. He was into a lot of devilment, but if you didn’t like George Anderson, you didn’t like anybody.”
Coke’s nephew, Milton Coke, 73, a former Arlington resident who now lives in Tucker, Ga., said the family has medals Coke earned as a celebrated boxer at Arlington High School.
“George was an athlete his whole life,” Coke said. “The family lore is that they had a Pacific Fleet boxing championship and George won his in his weight class — 156 pounds.”
Seaman 1st Class George Anderson Coke went into service in early 1941, ending up on the USS Oklahoma and in the crosshairs of history on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, just days after he turned 19. Torpedoes launched from Japanese warplanes ripped the hull of the ship, capsizing it and killing 429 crewman, including Coke.
Many servicemen were trapped in the ship, and though several were saved by rescuers who cut through the hull where they heard frantic tapping, many others could not be reached.
“The banging could be heard for over three days,” according to an account on USSOklahoma.com, “and then there was silence.”
War comes home
The news about Coke’s death — and that of another young man, Francis Heath, who died on the USS Nevada at Pearl Harbor — hit home hard in Arlington, a town of about 4,200 when the war broke out.
They were among 48 young Arlington residents who went off to war and didn’t come home, said Wanda Marshall, the historical society treasurer, who has helped compile research on the war.
More than 1 percent of the town’s residents were killed in the war.
“There were no boys left in town, hardly any able-bodied men,” Marshall said.
Coke’s mother did not want to believe the worst had happened to her son, especially after what arrived in the mail a couple of weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack.
“Julina received a Christmas card from George, with $20 in it, telling her to get herself a Christmas gift,” said Sherry Coke Dorn, a second cousin of George Coke. “That gave her hope that he was alive. But in January, they notified her that there were no other survivors.
“During all that time she was under a doctor’s care,” Dorn added. “She was so distraught. She had lost her husband four years before George.”
There was no relief for her in the coming years.
They said, ‘This is the Navy, and we would like to know if you are kin to George Anderson Coke.’ I was excited. I’ve known about him all my life.
Gay Nell La Fave, 71, George Coke’s second cousin
With war raging, Navy personnel worked from December 1941 to June 1944 recovering the remains of the deceased crew and burying them in two Hawaiian cemeteries, according to military history accounts. Then in 1947, the bodies were exhumed in an effort to identify them, but only 35 USS Oklahoma crew members were able to be positively identified. The rest were buried in the National Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as the “Punchbowl.”
It was decades later before the military tried again, this time armed with modern DNA forensic technology.
The phone call
Eight years ago, the phone rang at Gay Nell La Fave’s home in Comanche.
“They said, ‘This is the Navy, and we would like to know if you are kin to George Anderson Coke,’ ” recalled La Fave, 71, Coke’s second cousin. Her mom was his first cousin. “I was excited. I’ve known about him all my life. My mom had always wondered; he was like a brother to her.”
The caller wanted a DNA sample. “They sent me a package,” she said. “I swabbed my mouth and sent it back. And I’ve been waiting all these years for him to come home.”
A few years later, another family member was asked for a DNA sample.
The requests were going out years ahead of the Defense Department’s formal announcement in April 2015 that the bodies of the unidentified USS Oklahoma crewmen would be exhumed again for analysis. The task was assigned to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, and exhumations began in June of that year.
The family got the news late November or early December. But it wasn’t until Friday afternoon that the agency sent out its first public statement about having identified Coke. It said his remains had been linked to a nephew and a cousin using DNA analysis “as well as circumstantial evidence and laboratory analysis, to include dental comparisons and anthropological analysis, which matched Coke’s records.”
Family members said the remains being returned consist mostly of his skull.
At first, the relatives weren’t in agreement about burying his remains in Parkdale Cemetery. Some thought it best to rebury him, beneath a named marker, with his shipmates at the Punchbowl in Hawaii, while others considered Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia a more fitting honor.
“Military tradition is very strong that you have to be buried where you fell, but I made the decision to bring him back,” said Coke’s nephew, Milton Coke of Georgia, who said the military recognized that authority because he was the closest living relative. “He was my father’s little brother.”
Coke said a top official with the identification program “told me that 99.5 percent of the families are bringing them back home.”
As the plans for the homecoming have developed, all dissension has evaporated, relatives say. They expect it will be both celebration and relief.
“Of course, I wish his mother would have lived to have known he had been located and identified,” said Dorn, the second cousin in Arlington. “But the family certainly needed closure, and now they’re getting closure.
George Anderson Coke Jr.
Public memorial service
1 p.m. Saturday
First United Methodist Church
313 N. Center St.
701 S. Mary St.