After nearly 78 years, Dante S. Tini is finally coming home.
The Iron Range native is the latest Minnesota World War II sailor whose remains have been identified after being listed for decades as missing in action and presumed dead after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
Tini’s remains were expected to arrive in Duluth late Thursday before being escorted to nearby Virginia, where his hometown will gather Saturday at Calvary Cemetery to honor and bury him.
Tini was 19 years old and serving aboard the USS Oklahoma when the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, prompting the U.S. to declare war on Japan. It was supposed to be Tini’s day off, but the radioman agreed to take another man’s shift the day torpedoes sank the Oklahoma. Some men escaped by jumping into the harbor’s water — much of it covered in oil and on fire — while others climbed across mooring lines and onto the nearby USS Maryland.
Tini, however, was among the 429 crewmen who went down with the ship. Only about 35 were immediately identified, said Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Jeff Grand. Tini was not among them.
His mother wailed over the loss of a son she would never see again or be given a chance to bury. When she died, Tini’s siblings held onto hope that their brother’s remains eventually would be identified and returned home, said Barb Maki, Tini’s niece.
“Every holiday they would talk about him, wondering what Dante would be doing if he were alive. Would he be married? Would he have kids? They kept him alive for us by talking about him all the time,” Maki said.
He was a good-looking guy, Maki said, “a Casanova to say the least. The girls were after him.”
The son of Italian immigrants, Tini, who played the accordion, enlisted in the Navy after he graduated high school, reporting to duty on the Oklahoma in October 1940.
“He thought he was going to get to see the world, go to school and learn a lot more,” Maki said. “But that never happened.”
As Radioman 3rd Class Tini prepared to go on leave in December 1941, he sent his rhinestone-studded accordion and a few other belongings back to Minnesota. But three days before Tini would have been on a plane home, the Japanese attacked.
As the decades passed, Maki’s mother continued to believe that her brother’s body would someday be laid to rest in his hometown. If she didn’t live to see that day, she prayed her children would.
“She always had that feeling that he would come home,” Maki said. “I didn’t have as much hope as my mom.”
In 2012, a Navy officer called Maki asking that Tini’s relatives submit DNA in hopes that it could be used to help identify the remains disinterred in an effort to identify those buried as unknown. The Navy warned Tini’s family that it could take years before an identification was made — if ever.
Then came a call last August — Tini’s remains had been identified. He’d finally be coming home.
“It’s overwhelming,” Maki said.
Over the past four years, DNA has helped identify the remains of 200 of those who served on the Oklahoma, Grand said. Seven Minnesota men, including Tini, are among the missing who’ve been identified. Next month, the remains of another Oklahoma sailor, Edward Shelden, 29, of Indianapolis, will be buried at Fort Snelling alongside two other crewmen whose remains were recently identified.
The remains of three Oklahoma crewmen from Minnesota have yet to be identified, Grand said.
Tini’s remains, in a flag-draped casket, were expected to arrive late Thursday at the Duluth International Airport before being escorted by the Minnesota State Patrol to Virginia, where services will be held Saturday at Holy Spirit Catholic Church.
En route to the cemetery, the hearse will wind through the streets of Virginia, stopping in front of the VFW, named in part after Tini, and where a banner to welcome Tini home now hangs out front.
“MIA NO MORE,” it says.
Mourners plan to pause there while a bagpiper plays “Amazing Grace.” At the firehall, a large American flag is expected to fly from a ladder truck while firefighters and police officers stand at attention and salute as the procession passes.
Tini will be buried with full military honors, including a flyover by the 148th Fighter Wing, said Virginia Mayor Larry Cuffe Jr., an Air Force veteran who helped with the arrangements.
“It’s a way to respect those who served and paid the ultimate sacrifice,” Cuffe said. “Tensions were building, and he volunteered to go in there. It’s all about the sacrifices these people made. They died for our freedom — no matter who you are, what your lot in life is.”
Most who knew Tini best are gone, Cuffe said. But those who have kept his memory alive will finally be able to say goodbye.
“There will be closure,” he added. He’s finally home.