LEONIDAS TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Song and prayer filled the sanctuary of Factoryville Bible Church near Athens Tuesday, as a community welcomed home a West Michigan hero after his remains were unidentified for almost eight decades.

Joe Nightingale was born in South Haven in 1921 and later grew up in Kalamazoo before enlisting in the U.S. Navy at the age of 18. He was promoted twice, ultimately to seaman 1st class in just 16 months.

On the “date that will live in infamy,” Nightingale was on board the USS Oklahoma when it capsized because of damage caused by Japanese aircraft. He was among the 429 crewmen who died on the ship and became entombed when it sank.

U.S. Navy Seaman 1st Class Joe R. Nightingale, who died aboard the USS Oklahoma during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. (Courtesy U.S. Navy)

In the years that followed, Nightingale’s remains were exhumed from the wreckage, but not identified until 2015. It was two teeth and dental records that gave the family the answer they were waiting for, especially his late daughter.

Terri Matthews is Nightingale’s granddaughter and his only living direct descendent.

“(My mother’s) greatest wish was that something like this would happen, that the remains would be somehow found or that they could somehow memorialize him properly,” Matthews said.

Carole Nightingale Foster was just 9 months old when her brother was killed. While she didn’t get the chance to know him personally, she has an idea of who her brother was through many tales told then and now.

“Over the years, as I heard stories about him, I thought, ‘Oh, it was so sad not to really get to know him,’ but I did through the memories of other people,” Foster said. “We were so thankful to the Lord that He kept us around long enough to see this day, because Joe deserves this honor.”

Nightingale came from a military family. His father Charles, a Purple Heart recipient, and his uncle Joe both served in World War I. Like his father, Nightingale received the Purple Heart. He also earned a Bronze Star among other awards and decorations.

Navy officers gave Nightingale full military honors and covered all funeral expenses for the family. Eighty years to the day after their hero was lost, closure for this family is now found.

“Yes, there was a Joe Nightingale. Yes, he did die at Pearl Harbor. And yes, he is on his home turf again. We’re so glad for that,” Foster said.

“In the end, I’m very blessed to be here today. It’s almost like I’m honoring my grandfather, my grandmother, my mother. It’s quite an inheritance,” Matthews added.

Nightingale is interred at Fort Custer Cemetery in Augusta.