SIERRA VISTA — World War II Navy Signalman Third Class Austin Henry Hesler was laid to rest at Southern Arizona Veterans Memorial Cemetery Friday, nearly 80 years after he perished in the attack on Pearl Harbor, his remains unidentifiable for decades until a recent DNA test helped reunite him with family.

“It’s very touching,” said Katherine Ayala, Hesler’s great-niece, at the memorial service. “It’s wonderful ... I can come visit and know where he’s at. We’ll come every year.”

According to a press release from the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services, Hesler was 21 years old when his ship, the USS Oklahoma, was hit by a torpedo on December 7, 1941.

Hesler was killed in the attack along with 429 crewmen. The ship was recovered in 1944. In 2015, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency embarked on a project to re-examine the National Cemetery of the Pacific unidentified remains with DNA testing. DPAA confirmed it identified Hesler’s remains on Feb. 24, 2021.

Ayala, 72, said she never got to meet her great-uncle, but noted how her mother spoke fondly of Hesler, calling him a favorite.

Ayala said it was difficult for the family not knowing where Hesler’s remains were.

“It was hard,” she said. “(My mom) was into the ancestry.com and everything. But they didn’t have DNA then. So me and my sister, Virginia Row, give our DNA and that’s how they located him.”

“It was about a seven-year process, going back and forth getting DNA, checking,” said Paul Ayala, Katherine Ayala’s husband. “She and I took her mom and grandmother to meet some of the friends who were still alive and were shipmates to him.”

Ayala recalled meeting Hesler’s shipmates, who shared their memories with him, his wife and her mother and grandmother.

“For me, it was a big honor because these guys are talking about someone they knew,” said Ayala. “I didn’t know him, but they were friends with him. They said that after (the USS Oklahoma) was bombed, (Hesler) got out with the majority of them, and he went back in to help some people get out. The second time he went back in, he never made it out.

“They told of what he was like, what he did, you know the sort of things they would get into, the trouble they got into, and things like that.”

Ayala, a Vietnam veteran, talked about memorializing Hesler on Memorial Day weekend.

“It’s a great honor,” he said. “When you think about what happened, it was a long time ago, but it was a very, very big impact on our country. A lot of men died, and a lot of them haven’t been recovered. So, there’s still a lot of families that don’t have closure.

“It’s an honor to be here, yet it’s kind of sad. Because it’s not the sort of thing you want to be here for, but it’s important that we be here to show our respect and show that we care for him, and do what we can for someone like him. (Hesler) could’ve got out, he did, he could’ve stayed, but what possesses a young man to go back in like that?”

La Tisha Drzymala, Katherine Ayala’s niece, said it was an honor to attend the memorial.

“I didn’t want him to be forgotten,” said Drzymala. “Because a lot of times people are forgotten when they die, and he’s been gone for 80 years. There was a cousin of ours, Theresa Martin, that does the genealogy and the (government) contacted her and then she contacted me to tell me about it, ‘cause she and my mother, Virginia Row, they were going to give their DNA.

“It’s just really cool. You see on the news all the time that happens and you don’t think it’s going to happen to you. Being here is an honor.”

Joe Larson, administrator of the Southern Arizona Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery, said it is “an extremely great honor,” to have Hesler’s remains laid to rest in SAVMC.

“It could’ve went to Arlington (National Cemetery), it could’ve went to a lot of different, other cemeteries,” said Larson on Friday afternoon. “But the fact that they choose this cemetery, and a state veteran’s cemetery, is a great honor.

“This cemetery is one of the top cemeteries in the nation. It’s been ranked by the National Cemetery Administration ... To receive this kind of honor where somebody would choose to bring their loved ones down here is a great honor.”