‘We did it, Gramps. We brought him home’: 77 years after Pearl Harbor, Utah Marine is laid to rest

(Alex Gallivan | Special to The Tribune) Bob Holmes, the nephew of Marine Pfc. Robert K. Holmes, who died 77 years ago aboard the USS Oklahoma during the attack on Pearl Harbor, receives the flag from the Marine Corp at the Salt Lake City Cemetery, Monday, Aug. 20, 2018.

Bruce Holmes had a message for his late grandfather Monday at his uncle’s funeral.

“We did it, Gramps!” he said. “We brought him home.”

Nearly 77 years after Robert Kimball Holmes last visited his family in Utah’s capital, the remains of the Marine killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor were returned to his hometown and interred in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

“It’s strange, isn’t it," Bruce Holmes said, “to be here honoring a 19-year-old kid killed 77 years ago.”

It was, in many ways, a traditional military funeral. Bagpipes and drums played. Marines in uniform acted as pallbearers; they stood at attention as family members spoke and prayed; they fired off a salute; they took the American flag from the coffin, folded it and presented it to a family member. A lone bugler played taps as the more than 150 people in attendance bowed their heads.

On hand also were two-dozen members of the Patriot Guard Riders, the biker group that, decked out in leather vests and chains, attends funerals of members of the U.S. military and was formed 64 years after Pearl Harbor.

But it was indeed strange to be burying the remains of a man killed nearly eight decades ago — “a few bones” covered by “dress blue uniforms,” Bruce Holmes said.

Only one person in attendance at the graveside services — his nephew and namesake, Bob Holmes — had any personal memories of his uncle. The younger Bob, now more than four times as old as the older Bob was at the time of his death, said he has vivid memories of his uncle coming home on leave in the summer of 1941 when the nephew was just 6 years old. And stark memories of America’s sudden entry into World War II.

“One Sunday morning,” Bob Homes said, “my dad grabbed me and my younger brother [and] said, ‘There’s been a tragedy. We have to go down to Gramps.’”

It was Dec. 7, 1941, and his grandfather was listening to a radio report about the raid on Pearl Harbor. What they didn’t know at the time was that the battleship on which Pfc. Bob Holmes was serving, the USS Oklahoma, had been hit by several torpedoes from Japanese warplanes. It capsized and sank on battleship row, killing 429 crew members, including Holmes.

“Grandpa had to wait weeks to get any kind of information from the Marines, the War Department or the Navy Department,” the nephew said. Eventually, he received a telegram telling him his son was missing, followed by a second that he had been killed.

But the Marine’s remains were not identified until his nephew, Bruce — now 76 — submitted a DNA sample in 2017. A year later, he got a call telling him a match had been made, and his uncle’s remains were returned to the family for burial in Salt Lake City.

“It's an amazing thing to see how the military respects their dead,” Bruce Holmes said. “They will go to every end possible to recover them and bring them home. How could we have a more dramatic example than what we have here before us?”

(Photo courtesy U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency) Marine Pfc. Robert K. Holmes, of Salt Lake City, died aboard the USS Oklahoma during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Bob Holmes recalled, decades later, talking to a friend of his uncle who had served with him on the Oklahoma. “He said, 'One of the things that I remember most about Bob is that he had this attitude. Not just a Marine attitude, but a Holmes boy attitude — defiance, aggression and don’t-mess-with-me.

“He said Bob was standing on the deck of the Oklahoma, firing his handgun at the Japanese planes as they were bombing, strafing and dropping their torpedoes.”

Nearly 77 years later, Robert Kimball Holmes was laid to rest under a towering pine, just below 11th Avenue — a site that overlooks not just the military section of the cemetery but also the city itself.

“We have finally completed our journey, bringing Bob home,” Bob Holmes said, his voice breaking with emotion.