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Special Report: Bringing Dante Home

Updated: December 06, 2018 04:45 PM

It's been 77 years since Dante Sylvester Tini left this earth. The 19-year-old from Virginia had been at Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese launched their vicious attack that would propel the United States into WWII.

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He joined the navy right after graduating from Virginia High School in 1940. "He wanted to see the world," recalls his niece, Barb Maki. "He was adventurous," added another niece, Renee Prout.

Dante was the baby of four in his Italian immigrant family. And he ended up being the jokester. But he wanted to serve his country. Once enlisted, he was assigned aboard the USS Oklahoma. He was a radioman. "He sent out messages off the ship, and received them," Renee explained.

According to the military, the Oklahoma had been at Pearl Harbor for a year and one day when December 7, 1941 rolled around. Dante had expected to head home in time for the holidays. "He'd already sent most of his personal belongings back," Renee said. 

But he never made it. Instead, the Japanese sent him and his shipmates to the bottom of the ocean.

Dante's ship was torpedoed, and rolled over. In total, 429 men on board lost their lives. 

His parents, back at home on the Range, heard the terrible news like most of America, on the radio. They feared the worst. Then, a few weeks later, delivery of that dreaded telegram. "The whole block could hear them screaming," Barb shared.

They were devastated. "For a long time, our grandmother didn't want to believe he was dead," Renee added. "There was no body."

After the smoke cleared, the navy did recover bodies from the Oklahoma over the course of several years. Many were unidentifiable, and placed in nearly 50 graves in Hawaii. Some were identified. But not Dante's. 

Time marched on. His family kept his memory alive. "They talked about, wonder what Dante would be doing now. I wonder if he'd be here with us," Renee explained about her dad and aunt.

Eventually, Dante's parents, Rachel and Daniel, passed away. So did his brother, Vincent, and sister, Alda. All without saying a proper good-bye, to Dante.

"My dad would always hold out hope something would happen," Renee said about Vincent. 

She and Barb sat down with WDIO News in the Crellin-Tini VFW 1113 Post in Virginia. It's named for their uncle, who was the first man from Virginia to die in WWII. They carry on his story. A story, with a new twist.

"They called me first," said Barb. Six years ago, the agency tasked with recovering the remains of U.S. troops was looking for DNA from possible relatives. For years, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has been working on identifying the remains from the Oklahoma.

"They wanted the eldest of the family," Barb told us. So she and her sister, Rachel, and two of Renee's brothers, submitted DNA. Then, they waited. "They kept us updated. They said it could take a long time."

In August, the results that would change their world. There was a match! A perfect one, with Rachel. The DPAA broke the news to her, over the phone. "She was crying the whole time. She talked to them for two hours," Barb added.

The rest of the family all felt the same joy, as word spread. "I think we were so elated, it's closure for the family. You couldn't think straight. You just cried," remembered Barb.

Rachel and the others chose Memorial Day weekend to have Dante escorted back home for a burial with full military honors. "This is going to be a wonderful day for our family," said Renee.

He'll be laid to rest next to his beloved parents, which was his wish when he enlisted. "We said last night, they are happy. They're all together. Probably having a glass of wine, and wondering what the kids are going to do with all this information," Renee and Barb laughed.

The kids are making sure everyone can celebrate this happy news. Because they've always prayed, always hoped, they could finally say, they were bringing Dante home.

"What a hero. He died serving his country. We're proud of veterans, all of them," Barb said.

The family is inviting the public to the funeral, which is set for Saturday, May 25th at 11am at Holy Spirit Church in Virginia.

Copyright 2018 WDIO-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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