June Shoen doesn’t have many memories of her brother Quentin Gifford, who died in the bombing of Pearl Harbor more than 76 years ago when he was only 22.
She does, however, remember an old country song he used to play for her on the guitar in the backyard of their Mankato home, called “Life’s Railway to Heaven.”
“It’s a song that he loved and he played very well,” said Shoen, now 81. “He used to sit me on his knee and play it for me.”
She and more than 100 other people heard that song one more time at a memorial service for Gifford, whose remains were buried Saturday at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
Radioman Second Class Quentin J. Gifford was serving on the USS Oklahoma during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The attack killed more than 2,300 Americans and thrust the U.S. into World War II.
More than 400 USS Oklahoma crew members died, their unidentified remains interred in Hawaii until being exhumed in 2015 to analyze their DNA.
Gifford’s remains were identified last summer. His relatives decided to wait until after the winter for the military to fly his remains back to Minnesota. “We’d waited seventy-some years, we could wait a few months longer,” Shoen said.
A short service was held inside a chapel at Fort Snelling, led by the Rev. Kenneth Beale Jr. and featuring religious songs performed by a barbershop quartet. Gifford’s casket, draped in a U.S. flag and surrounded by flowers, rested in front of the pews.
Harold Gifford, 94, shared some memories of his older brother.
He was honest and well-educated, Gifford said, with a “no-nonsense” personality. Growing up, he wanted to be like his heroes Eliot Ness and Melvin Purvis, federal agents who had brought down famous gangsters.
His family, aware of the attack at Pearl Harbor, did not know his whereabouts for two weeks, Gifford said. “Our hearts were engulfed in fear and sorrow,” he said.
On Dec. 21, Gifford got a call from a Western Union representative who was transferring a telegram from the military. He passed the phone to his father, who was told that his son had died in the attack.
“I went to my room, put my face in the pillow, and I cried,” Gifford said softly.
He credited his brother — who urged him to finish high school — with his time in the Army Air Corps and his subsequent career in aviation. At the end, he thanked the people who came to celebrate his brother decades after his death.
“When I’m surrounded by so many wonderful people, each and every one of you, there’s just a feeling that seems to permeate the air with goodness and love,” he said.
“Life’s Railway to Heaven,” sung by Patsy Cline, played through the chapel’s speakers. Sen. Amy Klobuchar attended the cemetery service, three-gun salute and taps. The flag covering Gifford’s casket was folded in a triangle and given to Harold. Shoen and two other relatives were also handed folded flags, clutching them tightly to their chests.
Recent years had brought back those memories Shoen had of her older brother. Saturday’s burial, she said, gave her a gratifying, overwhelming sense of closure.
“He was my big, handsome brother. My hero,” she said. “And he still is.”