MERRY OAKS, Ky.—Nestled on the western edge of Barren County, Kentucky, is a small community named Merry Oaks, with a population of fewer than 300 people. In the 1900s, the community was mostly agricultural land with a few sawmills and general stores. The Great Depression hit every community hard and Merry Oaks didn’t escape its wrath.
Perhaps seeking a better life and more opportunities, three young men from this area joined the U.S. Navy. One would return home to his family; the other two would perish on the USS Oklahoma on Dec. 7, 1941, and remain missing in action for almost 80 years. One of them was finally brought home on May 29 after his remains were identified through DNA analysis.
Howard Scott Magers, who went by Scott, was born on Nov. 3, 1923, and raised in the Merry Oaks and Railton Communities. He attended a two-room schoolhouse, completing the eighth grade. His family operated a general store, and the children were often at work with their parents.
Then in 1937, his life changed when both his parents died within months of each other. His oldest brother, Fred, and his wife took guardianship of Magers and his siblings. Magers helped on his brother’s farm and worked a milk route before enlisting in the Navy in January 1941 at the age of 17.
The few people still alive who knew Magers remember his kindness to others, his loving heart, his smile, and his good looks.
Lano Gilbert, 86, remembers that when Magers would deliver milk to her house, he would stop and push the children on a rope swing that was close to the road.
“He was always so kind,” she said.
Helen McCandless, 88, recalled how their families used to visit each other, and the children would play outside. She remembers playing on her dad’s two-wheel trailer, which functioned as a see-saw.
“If the six of us walked down one side, it would come down with a loud bang. If we all stood in the middle, it would balance. Then some would try to off-balance the others. One day, I was tossed pretty hard. Scott noticed my fall and he took me by the hand and helped me back on, holding me so that I would not fall. He was a hero to me then and he always has been.”
Evelyn Patterson Lyons, age 93, remembers when Magers asked to walk a friend home from the Merry Oaks United Methodist Church.
“It was at least a mile each way, but that’s what you did in those days,” she remembers fondly. “Now, he’s coming back to where he used to walk and where his parents are buried.”
After completing his training, Magers reported aboard the USS Oklahoma on May 8, 1941. The ship had been stationed in Pearl Harbor since Dec. 6, 1940, one year and one day prior to the fateful attack. It was stationed there, as part of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, to provide a presence in hopes of discouraging Japanese aggression. The “presence” actually created an opportunity to destroy almost the entire fleet.
The Japanese carriers launched formations of dive bombers, torpedo planes, and fighters against the vessels, lasting less than two hours, damaging 21 ships and 320 aircraft, killing 2,390 people, and wounding 1,178 others. The USS Oklahoma was hit by a number of torpedoes and capsized about 20 minutes after being struck, killing 429 of the battleship’s 1,354 crew members, including many whose bodies were impossible to identify. Magers was listed among the missing.
The deceased from the USS Oklahoma were buried in mass graves and moved three times, with the “final” resting place being at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu, Hawaii. They remained there until 2003, when a single casket was disinterred in an attempt to use anthropological and DNA evidence to identify the remains. After testing, it was determined that the casket held the remains of at least 95 individuals, according to Dr. Carrie Brown, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency forensic anthropologist and USS Oklahoma team leader. Of this group, only five were identified.
As science advanced and DNA identification processes improved, in 2015, as part of the USS Oklahoma Project, the DPAA, through a partnership with the Department of Veteran Affairs exhumed all of the remains and began the lengthy identification process. Remains were divided between a laboratory in Hawaii and Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.
The remains of Magers were identified at Offutt Air Force Base in December 2020, although it’s probable that his remains were located at both labs due to the commingled state of the bodies.
The Defense Department is aiming to complete the identification process before the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. As of June 15, 341 were accounted for out of 392 USS Oklahoma unknowns. About 10 more should be announced soon. At that point, the project would be complete and the department will re-inter the remains of the ones they were unable to identify.
Magers’s family has waited for nearly 80 years, yet they never lost hope that he would return home. As the years passed, his siblings and in-laws have died, leaving only a sister-in-law and her children to continue the quest to bring him home. At long last, they were notified in February that Magers was coming home.
The local community responded to the news with an outpouring of support, planning a celebration of his life while honoring the military, veterans, and first responders. The 18-mile procession route was lined with American flags, yellow ribbons, and patriotic displays. People of all ages stood in the misting rain—some standing at salute, hats held over their hearts, some waving flags and wiping away tears. Others were simply still. Young children and the elderly stood side by side, witnessing the return of a hero.
Local fire departments displayed American flags. Firehouses organized displays along the procession.
As the hearse arrived at the cemetery, 500 people waited in silence. Magers was finally home.
The service focused on “memories of Scott before the war” and his long journey home. Family members provided songs and music, and a local minister delivered the eulogy.
Robert Overturf, a retired lieutenant commander of the U.S. Navy and a survivor of the USS Cole attack, didn’t know many in attendance.
“I secretly dreaded this. My heart has been ripped out from attending so many military funerals of sailors that were under my responsibility. I was genuinely worried as to how I would react during the service. As we arrived in the procession, things happened so quickly. I did not feel the overwhelming sense of sadness as I had become so accustomed to. It was more of a sense of pride and celebration that Scott was finally home. This was different, a very welcomed sense of pride.”
Michael and Jessica Young from Dickson, Tennessee, came to be a part of the historic event.
“My eyes filled with tears several times as I saw so many people came out to honor him with the flags and salutes. It did my heart good to know that so many people cared and remembered. It was just a tremendous response, unlike anything I have ever seen.”
Dale Shawver, a former U.S. Marine, rode his motorcycle from Sparta, Kentucky, a three-hour ride each way. He was thankful for the patriotism displayed by the community.
“It makes me feel honored as a veteran to see this amazing support.”
His brother Chris and his son, Lucas, both former Marines, also attended.
“It is so nice to see that regardless of the time a service member has been missing, America will not give up and we will honor our fallen. I am extremely proud of the respect and patriotism Kentucky displayed for this hero and his family,” Chris said.
The homecoming provided hope for families who have loved ones still missing in action (MIA). Suzanne Hoff Ogawa, the daughter of Commander Michael George Hoff, who is MIA from the Vietnam War, said that the service gave her hope.
“I do not know if there are adequate words for what attending Scott’s service meant to me. It gave me hope that one day, my father will come home, and perhaps there are people out there who remember him, and someday I will learn his stories,” she said. Her mother, Mary, came up with the idea to create the POW/MIA flag 50 years ago.
After the burial, a lei from Hawaii was placed on Magers’s tombstone, as is the tradition to honor fallen soldiers. He is buried next to his parents in a spot where he may have stood and grieved the loss of his mother and father. On his parents’ tombstone was an arrangement of yellow flowers with a single red rose to welcome him home.
Two days prior to the service, Magers’s remains were flown into Nashville, Tennessee, and escorted back to Kentucky by motorcade composed of Kentucky State Police, a local Rolling Thunder chapter, Charging Forward for America, and the Patriot Guard Riders.
A rainbow shone as the flag-draped casket was loaded into the hearse for his journey home.
Correction: An earlier version of this article inaccurately described Robert Overturf’s title. Overturf is a retired lieutenant commander of the U.S. Navy and a survivor of the USS Cole attack.