Remains of Ellsworth County sailor killed at Pearl Harbor return home

Published: Oct. 5, 2021 at 5:36 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Nearly 80 years after his death, an Ellsworth County native who served his country returns home. Fireman First Class Walter Belt Jr. served in the U.S. Navy. He died at the age of 25 aboard the USS Oklahoma during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In an August news release, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency said Belt was accounted for on March 3.

This Saturday, Oct. 9, Belt will be buried in Ellsworth. In 2015, the Department of Defense began identifying the remains using new DNA technology. Since then, more than 300 USS Oklahoma sailors have been identified.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency said The USS Oklahoma was attacked by Japanese aircraft and quickly capsize after sustaining multiple torpedo hits. The attack resulted in the deaths of 429 crewmen, including Belt.

“To identify Belt’s remains, scientists from DPAA used dental and anthropological analysis. Additionally, scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and autosomal DNA (auSTR) analysis,” the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency explained.

Belt’s homecoming is special for family members in Ellsworth, including his great niece, Deneen Urbanek who said she’s heard about Belt her entire life and has been part of the effort to return her great uncle’s remains home for his final rest.

“I have grown up my 53 years hearing about him every year on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and it has been a joy actually to work on bringing him home,” she said.

At the time of the attack on Dec. 7, 1941, the fireman first class was making sure motors on the ship were working

“The structure was different than it is today, but at that time, the chief was the highest enlisted rank and he was one below that in two years,” Urbanek’s husband, Robert Laubengayer said of Belt.

Over the years, the Ellsworth community has found ways to honor their hometown here. Finally, in the mid-2000s, the DNA tracking process began. Once Belt’s DNA was tracked, it was only a matter of time until he came back home.

“I think the family knew it was coming once they pulled DNA, they just didn’t know when,” Laubengayer said.

In August, Belt’s family received the call they’d been waiting years for: Walter Belt Jr. was coming home.

“Overwhelmed and just disbelief that it’s finally happening after almost 80 years,” Urbanek said.

On Saturday morning, a procession ceremony for the veteran will take place in downtown Ellsworth, followed by a burial at the Ellsworth Memorial Cemetery.

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