CENTRAL CITY — Seventy-seven years after Gerald Clayton died, his hometown and the U.S. military gave him a fine ceremony and a proper burial with military honors Friday in Central City.
Many Central City residents, holding American flags, lined 17th Avenue and Highway 14 from the railroad tracks to the cemetery. Fire trucks were also stationed along the route, A giant American flag was held aloft at the entrance to Central City Cemetery. Members of the Patriot Guard Riders, Legion Riders and Christian Motorcycle Association led the procession that carried Clayton’s casket to the cemetery.
Clayton, who graduated from Central City High School in 1938, was 21 years old when he perished aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma during the attack on Pearl Harbor. His remains were accounted for last September.
Uniformed Navy and Air Force personnel, most of them from Offutt Air Force Base, were part of the graveside services. The Navy personnel came from a Navy Reserve Center at Offutt. Also on hand was a color guard from Central City American Legion Post 6. “Taps” was performed by Air Force Gunner’s Mate Tara Maulsby, an Omaha native.
Close to 200 people attended the graveside service.
Rear Admiral Linnea Sommer-Weddington presented a flag to the Clayton family, on behalf of the president, the United States Navy “and a grateful nation.” Sommer-Weddington works with the U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt.
Among the officers on hand was Chief Warrant Officer Millie Woodward of Millington, Tenn. The eulogy was delivered by the Rev. Mike Moreno, a chaplain with the U.S. Navy Reserves.
At the cemetery, the casket was pulled by a horse-drawn antique hearse.
More than 50 members of the Clayton family attended the event, which ended with Clayton finally resting in his hometown cemetery, surrounded by his next of kin.
No one still alive remembers Clayton when he was alive. His four siblings have passed away.
The longest-living survivor is Pat Lincoln of Grand Island, who was born in July of 1942. Her father, Roger, was one of Clayton’s brothers.
Another relative, Sheri Spomer, spoke at the cemetery.
“None of us alive today knew Jerry,” Spomer said. “We didn’t know the sound of his voice or what type of sense of humor he had, but we do know he was part of a tight-knit family. A family who celebrated holidays and special occasions together. A family who agonized over his decision to join the Navy and see the world but was filled with pride over his desire to serve his country. A family who suffered unimaginable grief and sadness after never really knowing his fate. A family that was forever changed after Dec. 7, 1941.
“We also know that Jerry was part of and loved by a small community. A community who cheered him on the football field and basketball court. A community who watched him grow into a man and set an example for many others who came after him. A community who was filled with pride at his service and sorrow at his sacrifice,” Spomer continued.
“Today we bring him home to his parents, Lee and Grace, and his siblings, Ken, Gwen, Rod and Annie, and we bring him home to his community of Central City,” she said.
She thanked the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and the Navy for identifying Clayton “and bringing him home after nearly 78 years. And we thank you all for coming out to honor a man we never knew,” she said. “Let us all remember the price he paid for our freedom.”
Spomer is the daughter of Gary, who was Clayton’s nephew. Both Central City natives live in Arizona.
The motorcycle escorts Friday included at least a dozen members of the Patriot Guard Riders, said ride captain Dan Zegers of Fullerton.
Fifteen motorcycles led the procession that departed from Solt-Wagner Funeral Home.
The Legion Riders included three men who came from Lincoln — Hubert Olsen, Dave Dietz and Mike Streeter.
They took part “to honor this man and his family. We’re happy that he finally made it home,” Dietz said.
Clayton’s siblings were Ken Clayton of Hordville, Gwen Leach of Ord and Roger Clayton and Anna Lee Cobb, both of Central City. Cobb was the last surviving sibling. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 85.
Her son, Dean, provided the DNA to help identify Clayton’s remains. His mother took the death of her brother “pretty hard,” because they were close in age, said the 67-year-old Central City resident.
One of the people at Friday’s service was Dee Dee King of Manvel, Texas. A certified genealogist, she helped identify Clayton’s bones and bring them home.
All of the military branches contract with professional genealogists “to work on their military repatriation cases,” she said. King has had a contract with the Navy since 2009.