MAULDIN, SC - Nearly 76 years after he died on the USS Oklahoma, Navy Seaman First Class Milton Reece Surratt came home to his final resting place, buried next to the mother he adored.
Surratt, who would have turned 97 later this month, was killed on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese torpedoes attacked and capsized the Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor, but he was declared missing in action and his body never recovered.
After three-quarters of a century, his remains were identified through the use of DNA from family members, and he was laid to rest with full military honors Friday in the Mauldin First Baptist Church cemetery.
Reece, as he was known, was remembered as a “farm boy” who loved animals and his family, at the Friday afternoon service in the nearly-full chapel of Heritage Funeral Home in Simpsonville.
Carried into the chapel by Navy personnel in crisp dress whites, Surratt’s flag draped coffin was flanked by two arrangements of red roses.
Surratt was eulogized by Navy Rear Admiral Joey Dodgen, who explained that on that fateful Sunday morning, the USS Oklahoma was preparing for an inspection the following day. That mean the watertight compartment doors would have been opened, and the Japanese torpedoes that had been adapted to fire in the relatively shallow waters of Pearl Harbor could hit their marks easily.
Eight torpedoes fired were fired during the first wave, and the atmosphere likely would have been “pandemonium as the sailors fought the damage,” Dodgen said.
More than 400 crewmen lost their lives on the ship. “We’ll never know the details of what went on inside that ship. But sailors are fighters. We know they did all they could do to save the ship and to save each other,” Dodgen said.
John Daniel Baldwin, Surratt’s 99-year-old first cousin, shared memories of the kid he grew up hunting and fishing with, the “bosom buddy” who was like a brother to him.
“There was two years’ difference between him and myself, so we hit it off real good,” Baldwin said.
The two of them dammed up a nearby creek to make a swimming hole, they rode their bikes from Mauldin to Greenville to watch the circus on Perry Avenue, and hunted rabbits in the winter months.
When Surratt joined the Navy, he begged Baldwin to join too, but Baldwin had a job that he didn’t want to leave so he didn’t accompany Surratt. But Baldwin said he eventually served in the Army Air Corps.
Baldwin said the chapel was filled on Friday with relatives he’d never met, and “Reece, you’re responsible for this. You paid the price, and we thank you.”
Shirley Watkins, Surratt’s niece, was 9 years old when her uncle was killed, and she said Friday that she didn’t know him as well as other cousins did because she and her family lived in Durham, North Carolina.
But “he was a vibrant 21-year old man,” Watkins said. “He was 19 when he left here (to enlist), and his life was cut short much too soon.”
When he was assigned to the Oklahoma after basic training, “I can imagine his excitement. He was a farm boy who had probably never been farther than North Carolina,” she said.
Watkins remembered the Christmas Eve telegram that let the family know Surratt was missing in action, after more than two weeks of uncertainty.
“I don’t think Christmas was ever the same for my mother,” she said.
The Rev. Robert P. Keely quoted the New Testament passage from the Gospel of John in which Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
On Dec. 7, 1941, Surratt, like countless other sailors and soldiers who came before and after, “laid down his life for you and me. He gave the ultimate gift of life for us … so that we can sit here without fear, so that we can praise the Almighty God and read scripture and pray,” Keely said.
Following the funeral service, the hearse bearing Surratt’s coffin was escorted by police, American Legion Riders, and the Patriot Guard. Along the way, a few people got out of their cars and saluted as the hearse passed, and a fire department engine displayed a large American flag near the entrance to the cemetery.
Surratt was laid to rest to the accompaniment of a 21-gun salute and a lone bugler playing “Taps.”
© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved