Navy Seaman First Class Robert Monroe Temple, 19, thought he would send some tropical warmth back home to his parents in the Midwest for Christmas in 1941. Stationed in Hawaii, he wrote a letter saying that he had some photos taken that he would mail home as Christmas gifts.
“I thought it would be better than any present I could send,” he scribed onto YMCA notepaper, dated Nov. 26, 1941.
It would be the last words his family would ever have from him. Temple’s letter and photos made it back home. He would not.
On Dec. 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Temple would be one of 2,335 Americans to lose his life that day, though his family would not receive definitive word on his fate for three-quarters of a century.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
Robert Temple’s nephew, John Temple of Shiloh, has one sepia-toned portrait, as well as letters, telegrams and other treasured mementos of his Uncle Bobby, who until recently had still been officially listed by the Navy as missing in action.
For 75 years, his bereaved family never had the closure they sought.
In 2012, the family was notified that the U.S. Navy was identifying remains of the “unknowns” through DNA testing. Bobby’s two surviving siblings sent the requested swabs in for samples.
In March, the siblings received a call — Bobby Temple was one of 60 bodies to be positively identified.
“After 75 years of uncertainty, this closure is welcome news to my family. After so many years, there is something wholesome and healing in knowing the truth,” John said.
John Temple, now executive pastor of Faith Family Church in Shiloh, will conduct a memorial service for his uncle on Saturday, June 17. The service, which is open to the public, will be at 11 a.m.
“Anyone who would like to attend is welcome. We opened it up to include anybody who feels connected for any reason,” Temple said. “After so many years of waiting, our family is looking forward to conducting a memorial service that properly honors Bobby’s life and sacrifice. There are many letters, pictures and amazing stories to be shared.”
The Temple family is arriving from various parts of the country. Bobby’s surviving brother James, who lives in O’Fallon, Mo., and sister Barbara Johnson, who is coming from rural Tennessee, will be there.
They are also meeting with Navy representatives May 31 to discuss the details about the DNA findings.
This is the family’s first opportunity to memorialize Bobby.
“Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Malvine have a whole dining room table full of documents. They have his Purple Heart,” John Temple said, as he and his wife, Vicki Nettles Temple, explained the remarkable chronology associated with the events.
Within 10 minutes of the start of the attack Dec. 7, 1941, nine torpedoes hit the USS Oklahoma, the ship on which Bobby Temple was serving. It capsized and sank in 20 minutes. Despite valiant rescue efforts, the bodies of 429 crewmen were entombed with the ship. Bobby Temple was presumed to be one of them.
On Dec. 27, Elizabeth Temple received a telegram stating her son was missing in action. In February 1942, she received another telegram, this one stating that the Navy was declaring Bobby dead.
“Since there were no remains identified, initially the family kept a slight hope inside them that Bobby would somehow show up alive and well,” John said.
In 1943, the Oklahoma was raised through major engineering efforts. The skeletal remains of the crew were recovered, and 34 bodies were identified through dental records. The rest were placed in a mass grave marked “Unknown.”
At the time of his death, Bobby’s family were sharecroppers in Wathena, Kansas, which is across from St. Joseph, Mo. They lived in a two-room cabin, and harvested strawberries and apples.
Bobby had two brothers and sisters: Charles and Jimmy, Joan (pronounced JoAnn) and Barbara, and a stepsister and brother, Frank and Edith Fees.
“They did not have electricity or indoor plumbing. They were so happy. They worked hard and played hard,” John said.
The family moved to Des Moines, Iowa, about a year and a half after Bobby’s disappearance.
When he left home to join the Navy at 18, Bobby set off on a whole new life of adventure, John said. He became engaged to a nurse in San Francisco, Ann Novak.
John learned from his grandmother about the loss of her son, recalling one summer in Hermann, Mo.
“She always wore a bib apron. She loved to cook for people, and take care of them. She told my brother and me how she had lost her darling son, and then handed us one of his medals. It was the first time I felt her broken heart,” John said. “I am sure a deep part of her was resolved that he wasn’t coming back.”
He read part of a note his grandmother had written on the back of her daughter Joan’s algebra homework a few days after Pearl Harbor: “No word from my darling boy Bob. How I would love to hear the wonderful word that he’s safe. But, of course I will have to wait. I feel so down-hearted. I pray most of the day, even though that I know that we have our work to do and others to care for,” she said. “The Navy told us to remain calm. But it is hard to do. We could get good news or we could get the worst. I pray that God gives me the strength to bear the terrible news that we might get.”
Other men in the family have joined the Navy. John himself served four years during the Vietnam era, entering in 1966. His father, Charles, signed up in 1944, and Jimmy did, too, but the war had ended by his enrollment.
“All of us cousins have been in the Navy,” he said.
John moved to Belleville in 1961 and graduated from Belleville Township High School in 1963. He and Vicki met at a dance at Panorama Bowling Alley, and have been married for 51 years. They have two children and two grandchildren.
“I have a new compassion for the MIAs, out of Vietnam and other wars. I have a great deal of compassion for mothers and fathers who never hear if their children or alive or not,” John said.
For questions or more information, John can be reached at 618-580-8100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.