BLOOMFIELD — Joseph Maule is home.
For 77 years, his family waited and prayed that their son, brother, uncle and even great-uncle would find his way back to the town where he had lived a hard-scrabble life with his parents and five siblings.
Born March 20, 1923, to Anton and Ellen Maule, Joseph was just 17 when his older brother, Vlastimil “V.K.,” signed the papers allowing him to join the U.S. Navy in January 1941.
He went to escape the poverty, said Cindy Maule of Phoenix, who is married to Joseph’s nephew and namesake.
The small-town boy got his first taste of city life when stationed in San Francisco, said his great-nephew, Joshua Maule of Arizona. An avid letter writer, Joseph sent frequent reports back to his family telling about his exploits and his fascination with the city.
“He was a friendly, wonderful guy ... who had a broad smile and a terrific laugh,” said Joshua Maule.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the seaman 1st class was stationed aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, when it was struck by torpedoes delivered by the Japanese navy. Around 400 sailors — including Maule — went down with the ship.
It took a few weeks for the government to let the family know that their young son and brother was missing. A few years later, the remains of the men on board the Oklahoma were recovered and buried in a military cemetery in Hawaii.
Joseph, the handsome, gregarious boy, was gone. But he was not forgotten.
“We heard about him daily,” said Joseph Maule, who is V.K.’s son. “He was surely never forgotten.”
The fact that he was the one who signed the papers allowing his brother to enter the military haunted his father for the rest of his life, added Joseph Maule.
The family prayed for Joseph daily and patiently hoped that somehow he would be returned home and buried on the hill west of Bloomfield.
Time marched on. One by one, Joseph’s parents and siblings died. So the task of waiting and praying was handed down to his nieces and nephews and even great-nieces and -nephews who kept up the vigil.
Their prayers were answered by scientists who discovered the power of DNA technology. In time, the remains of the sailors aboard the Oklahoma were disinterred and taken to the Department of Defense laboratories, including one at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha. Maule’s remains were identified last year.
And on Thursday afternoon, the sun broke through the clouds and shone down on Joseph Keith Maule while he was committed to the ground next to the parents who never stopped praying that their son would come home.
“We are here to celebrate a man who we call a hero,” said the Rev. Kizito Okhuoya, who read from the Gospel of John and assured the family, friends, members of the military honor guards and others in attendance that God was with Joseph during those last moments of his life.
Then the voices of the Maule sisters filled the air with the strains of “Amazing Grace,” “Anchors Away” and “America the Beautiful,” a rifle volley fired a salute, taps resounded, the flag covering Maule’s casket was folded and given to his family, and Joseph Maule was finally home.