Hero lost in Pearl Harbor identified 80 years later, buried in Sierra Vista

Published: May. 28, 2021 at 5:52 PM MST|Updated: May. 28, 2021 at 6:32 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Eight decades after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a veteran is finally being laid to rest in Sierra Vista.

Signalman Third Class Austin Henry Hesler was killed in action when he was only 21 years old.

He survived the initial bombing but went back in to save others. He didn’t make it back out.

For years, the family tried to locate his body to bring him home. It was only after his great-nieces submitted DNA, that he was able to be matched. A service was held for him Friday at the Southern Arizona Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery in Sierra Vista with full military honors.

“We waited all these years to locate him,” said Hesler’s great-niece Katherine Ayala. “I was so happy, it’s like a closure.”

“It’s an honor to be here, but it’s kind of sad because it’s not the sort of thing you want to be here for. It’s important we be here to show our respect and show that we care for him,” said family member Paul Ayala.

Hesler received the Purple Heart and other awards posthumously for his bravery.

The family is not sure where he was found, but his remains were confirmed and identified in February.

The family said he could have been buried at Arlington or in Hawaii, but they chose the Southern Arizona Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery to be near family. His great niece’s father-in-law, another veteran, is also buried there.

According to a news release from Veteran’s Services, Hesler enlisted in the Navy on Aug. 8, 1939 while in Kansas City, Missouri. He reported for duty aboard the USS Oklahoma in October.

Early in the morning on Dec. 7, 1941, the Oklahoma was hit by several torpedoes and sank. 429 officers and enlisted men were killed, including Hesler.

When the ship was recovered, the bodies could not be identified. The remains were marked unknown and buried in mass graves at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

In 2015, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency began reexamining the remains using advanced DNA testing. On Feb. 24, 2021, DPAA confirmed that Hesler’s remains were identified.

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