Ventura sailor returns home nearly 81 years after dying in Pearl Harbor attack

Nearly 81 years after the Pearl Harbor bombing, the body of Navy shipwright Claude Ralph Garcia has returned home in Ventura County, ending a death that has stunned a close-knit military family.

The long-delayed journey home began a year ago when Ric Ruffinelli received a letter in the mail about his great-uncle, who died during the Pearl Harbor bombing.

Garcia was aboard the USS West Virginia on December 7, 1941 when Japanese bombers attacked the naval base, sinking the battleship and plunging the United States into World War II.

One hundred and six sailors aboard the ship died as a result of the attack, including 25-year-old Garcia. Garcia’s brother, another Navy seaman, watched the ship sink and realized he would never see his brother again.

The letter, which Ruffinelli preserved from the United States Navy, claimed they were looking for Garcia’s relatives because his remains were exhumed from a memorial site where he was unidentified for over 80 years. Ruffinelli was initially skeptical.

“About a month later I received a call from a person in the Department of the Navy. They were very believable,” Ruffinelli said. “And that’s why they wanted DNA samples.”

Officials were able to verify Garcia’s identity using Ruffinelli and his sister’s DNA.

“I cannot commend the Department of the Navy enough for all the efforts they have made,” Ruffinelli said. “I mean, 81 years later, for goodness sake. I just take my hat off to them. I am impressed with the effort they have put in.”

Garcia’s remains arrived at Los Angeles International Airport Tuesday in a flag-draped coffin. He was accompanied by the honor guard, according to Laura Herzog, a veteran’s attorney at the nonprofit organization Honoring Our Fallen.

American Airlines veterans, local law enforcement and first responders attended the arrival ceremony, and American flags were draped over freeway overpasses as the coffin was transported to Ventura’s Ivy Lawn Memorial Park. Garcia will be buried in a private family ceremony.

Herzog hopes the procession has inspired some motorists on the 405 Freeway to reflect on the sacrifices made by service members like Garcia.

“Just as I didn’t know Claude’s story, I didn’t know Claude’s family, but he died for my freedom,” Herzog said. “Freedom is not free. It’s not free today, and it wasn’t free then.”

CBS 2 News first reported on Garcia’s homecoming.

Garcia died six years before Ruffinelli was born, but he can remember his great-uncle Bob Garcia and great-grandmother talking about their loved one who never came home from the war. Ruffinelli’s grandmother was Garcia’s sister.

Garcia’s brother was also at Pearl Harbor the day the USS West Virginia was attacked and sank. The brothers saw each other the night before the attack, Ruffinelli said. The next day, Bob Garcia watched as the ship was torpedoed and bombed.

“So he really didn’t like talking about it,” Ruffinelli said. “There have been very few instances where they have revealed anything about him at all. And I think the emotional impact of his death was just incredible.”

What Ruffinelli could gather from family histories was that his uncle Claude was an athlete who attended Ventura High School but didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life after school. He ended up reporting to the Navy to find direction.

After the USS West Virginia was sunk at Pearl Harbor, she was repaired and brought back to the surface. Navy records show that the remains of 66 men trapped in the lower decks were later discovered. According to official records, at least three men survived 16 days before running out of oxygen.

Garcia’s remains were interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, or “Punchbowl” as it is located in Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu. But more than a year ago, the remains of the sailors were exhumed and Navy officials began the tedious work of identifying the men. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency worked with Garcia’s family to identify his remains, Ruffinelli said.

The attack on Pearl Harbor killed 2,335 military personnel. While Ruffinelli never met his great-uncle, he feels that focus has been placed on Garcia’s place in history. Ventura sailor returns home nearly 81 years after dying in Pearl Harbor attack

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