JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Western Union telegram came on Dec. 21, 1941, two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, confirming what Bessie Meyer already knew: Her son was gone.
"The Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that your son Herbert Joseph Poindexter Jr Seaman First Class US Navy is missing following action in the performance of his duty and in the service of his country. The Department appreciates your great anxiety and will furnish you further information promptly."
In February, another telegram arrived: "After exhaustive search it has been impossible to locate your son ... and he has therefore been officially declared to have lost his life."
Herbert Joseph Poindexter, better known as “H.J.,” grew up poor in Jacksonville and went to Andrew Jackson High School. In 1936, in the depths of the Great Depression, the Navy seemed a good way out of poverty, so he joined up and made his way to the Pacific Ocean.
He was 24 when he died five years later, a barber on the battleship Oklahoma.
He figured he’d be at sea another couple of years, then move to Arizona, where he had a fiancée and a ranch on which he was making payments.
But war caught up with him on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese planes torpedoed the Oklahoma, docked at Ford Island. The ship quickly capsized.
Poindexter and 428 other men from the ship were killed, among the more than 2,400 Americans who died in the attack on Hawaii.
Back in Jacksonville, Mayor John T. Alsop paid him tribute at a memorial service at Central Christian Church, as did a representative from Scout Troop No. 230, of which the sailor had been a member.
That might have provided some comfort to Poindexter's mother and his younger sisters, Lilyan and Helen. But they had no coffin to grieve by, no physical evidence of his passing.
H.J.'s body could not be identified among those recovered from the wreck. And no one could even be sure if his were among the hundreds of remains from the Oklahoma crew that were buried in the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
But in 2015, members of the military’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency exhumed the unknown remains from the ship, counting on modern science to finally identify those who had died.
And last September, the agency’s scientists got a DNA match: H.J. Poindexter had finally been found.
This June, more than 77 years after he died, he will buried at the national cemetery in Jacksonville, his hometown.
His mother and sisters all passed away well before he was identified.
"But I know it would have meant so much to them," said Poindexter's niece, Lisa Williams of Fernandina Beach.
The military reached out to her after the identification project began, hoping to get a DNA sample from a family member to aid in the search. She is the daughter of H.J.'s sister Helen, but she is adopted.
Yet she could still help. She told them: There is a surviving blood relative, the son of H.J.'s other sister, Lilyan.
In Tucson, Ariz., Joe Allen took the provided DNA kit, swabbed the inside of his cheek and sent the kit back. It led to a positive match.
Allen, a retired medical physicist, said his mother and her sister idolized their brother, and told him what a good man he was and how crushed they and their mother were by H.J.'s death.
Neither Allen, 76, nor his cousin Williams, who is 56, were born while he was alive. Yet they heard stories, and Williams had her mother's collection of photos and those fateful telegrams from the Navy.
"Even though it had been so long, it seemed like he was part of the family," Williams said. "He had a farm in Arizona, he had a fiancee, he had what looked like a real bright future."
Poindexter had a car that he'd left in Arizona, and after he was killed his mother and sisters drove there to collect it. They met his fiancee and shared their sorrow. Later the young woman sent H.J.'s mother a letter: She was getting married.
"She wanted to let her know she was safe and had met a fine man and wanted to start a family," Allen said.
“And of course my grandmother was happy to know that. Even though she didn’t really know the young lady, she felt a tie because of her connection to H.J.”
Though he was gone, he continued to influence his family.
Joe Allen goes by his middle name, which his mother gave him in honor of H.J.'s middle name. And Williams, a wallpaper hanger, said her mother joined the Women's Army Corps in 1942, learned to fly planes, and piloted supply planes stateside during the war.
"She felt very patriotic and wanted to honor his memory," she said. "They depended on him — and then he was gone, never getting to say goodbye."
The family's tradition of military service has continued: Williams' youngest son became a Marine, and served two tours in Afghanistan.
Williams said she gets teary-eyed thinking about how much it means that her uncle's remains, along with those of others from his ship, are finally being identified.
“I just started crying because I knew how much that would have meant to my mom and aunt and grandmother,” she said.
“It was just really touching, that they took science and turned it into something so emotional to all of these families.”