Seventy-four years after he was killed at Pearl Harbor, Navy Chief Petty Officer Albert Eugene Hayden was laid to rest Wednesday beside his parents in a rural parish cemetery on a hilltop in St. Mary’s County, Md.

Young sailors who knew of Pearl Harbor only through history carried their shipmate toward a grave beside his mother, who once wrote, as others did in those times, that she had been crushed by his loss.

“He was one of my best,” Emma J. Hayden wrote to a relative the month after the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on the Hawaiian islands killed her son.

But his body was never returned. His spirit was not present, she would say. And some in the family think she may have saved the grave plot beside hers for the day he would come back.

Almost three-quarters of a century after Albert “Rouch” Hayden perished aboard the torpedoed battleship USS Oklahoma, he was returned Wednesday to his mother, who rests beside him, and his father, Edward, who is buried beside her. He was given a solemn farewell, with a funeral Mass, the bells of an old brick church tolling across the countryside and a rifle salute echoing in the cemetery.

Emma Hayden wrote this letter to a relative on Jan. 26, 1942, after her son was killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor. (N/A/Courtesy of Ronnie Kissinger )

Hayden’s remains had been recovered from the Oklahoma, which capsized as it sank, trapping hundreds of sailors below decks.

But because of the deterioration and jumbling of the remains, Hayden and most of the others ended up buried three years after the attack as “unknowns” in a cemetery in Hawaii.

Last year, the Defense Department launched a renewed effort, using new and old technology, to identify the dead from the ship.

Scores of caskets were exhumed last summer and fall, and in January, the Pentagon announced the identities of five sailors, including Hayden. The project is a monumental task that will take years to complete, officials have said.

But family descendants still remember and are waiting for word. Emma Hayden died in 1955, still missing her son’s presence, said Edward Hayden, 77, of Crapo, Md., the sailor’s nephew and a next of kin.

“Grandmom kept saying Rouch’s spirit is not here,” he said. “I wanted him buried as close to my grandmother as possible.”

Emma Hayden, the mother of Albert Eugene Hayden, is shown in this undated family photo. (Courtesy of Ronnie Kissinger )

His remains were flown Tuesday from a military laboratory in Hawaii.

A ceremony such as Hayden’s funeral Wednesday afternoon, at St. Joseph Parish’s cemetery in Morganza, offers a glimpse into one family’s anguish in the wake of the cataclysm that pushed the United States into World War II.

On Jan. 26, 1942, seven weeks after Pearl Harbor, Hayden’s widowed mother, then 69, wrote to Rose Hayden, her brother-in-law’s wife.

Dear Rose:

I have tried to write you but my existence is crushed. This is a cruel cold world. I try hard to make the best of it so not to make others unhappy. ... Rose he was one of my best.

I was talking to the war department and they yet say he is not accounted for and also said the ship (Oklahoma) is yet at the bottom of Pearl Harbor and that is where his dear body is, I believe so at any rate. ...

With love to all,

Always

Emma

That March, the family announced in a local newspaper that the Navy had confirmed Emma’s fears: Her son had been killed.

Neighbors remembered Emma afterward as a somber woman. “She always wore black,” said Mary Tice, who lived across the street from the Hayden homestead in Mechanicsville, Md. “She had a black bonnet and a black long dress. I never saw her in anything other than that.”

“She never smiled much,” Tice recalled outside the church Wednesday. “She seemed sad.”

More than 400 sailors and Marines were killed aboard the Oklahoma — a toll at Pearl Harbor second only to the 1,100 lost on the USS Arizona, whose wreck remains a hallowed historic site.

By the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, Hayden was 44 and a seasoned member of the Navy. He had served in World War I. He had been in the service for 24 years and had left the farms and hamlets of St. Mary’s County long before.

In 1941, he stood 5-feet-11, weighed 190 pounds and had blue eyes and dark brown hair. He was described as “robust.” He had a sailor’s head and three stars tattooed on his right arm. The Navy paid him $157.50 a month.

He was born in 1897 in Piney Point, on a spit of land in the county between the Potomac and St. Mary’s rivers, according to a 1942 newspaper account.

He was one of five sons of James Dolor Hayden and Emma. The couple also had two daughters who had died of diphtheria as children, according to Ronnie Kissinger, the daughter of a cousin, and a family spokeswoman.

“Emma’s got her wish,” Kissinger said Wednesday after the funeral. “Her boy is home to be with her. The family is thrilled to have him here.”

The Hayden family had been in St. Mary’s County since the 1600s, according to online genealogy records. Most people in the county worked on farms or on the water.

In 1909, Hayden’s father bought a property in Mechanicsville, Md., and opened a boarding house that the family called the Hotel Hayden, catering to workers and travelers, according to the Maryland Historical Trust.

The building, no longer a hotel, still stands in the old village, not far from a stream called Hayden Run.

Hayden attended elementary school at what is now the Leonard Hall Junior Naval Academy, in Leonardtown, then an agricultural school, and went to high school at the old Charlotte Hall Military Academy, in Charlotte Hall, according to school officials.

On June 20, 1917, he joined the Navy in Washington. The United States had entered World War I that April. Hayden was 20.

Eighteen days later, on July 8, his father died at age 49. He was buried in St. Joseph Parish’s cemetery.

Hayden was assigned to the new battleship USS Texas, which was dispatched to serve with the British fleet during the war.

The Texas was at the surrender of the German fleet in 1918 and helped escort President Woodrow Wilson to the Paris Peace Conference, according to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.

Hayden went on to serve aboard the battleship USS Pennsylvania and the aircraft carrier USS Lexington before joining the Oklahoma in 1937, Kissinger said.

The identification of his remains came via a project that began in April 2015, when the Defense Department announced plans to exhume an estimated 388 of the Oklahoma’s unknowns and make a renewed effort to identify them.

Hayden’s prewar dental records were compared with his remains, as well as circumstantial evidence and laboratory analysis, to identify him, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) said. Hayden had 15 surviving teeth, several with gold crowns, along with “dental appliances,” according to a DPAA report.

Most of the dead were found in the fuel-oil-soaked wreckage as the ship was righted and salvaged in the months after the attack, according to the DPAA. During that time, the bodies had been reduced to skeletons.

In the months and years after the attack, the handling of the remains was plagued by error and poor record-keeping.

By 1944, the bones, saturated with fuel oil, had been buried in two Hawaiian cemeteries.

Three years later, they were dug up and taken to a military laboratory near Pearl Harbor for attempted identification.

The chief tool then also was the comparison of the dental records with the teeth of the deceased. And several dozen tentative identifications, including Hayden’s, were made.

But they were later rejected as incomplete and inadequate by authorities. Family members were never told.

In 1949, all of the remains were declared unidentifiable. They were bundled in military blankets and reburied in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, often called the Punchbowl, in Hono­lulu.

There, they rested until last year, when 61 rusty caskets — many holding the remains of more than one sailor — were retrieved from 45 graves. Hayden’s remains, wrapped in a military blanket, were among 10 such bundles in his casket.

After they were removed, they were cleaned and photographed, and most of them were flown to a DPAA lab in Nebraska for further analysis. Skulls were retained in a DPAA lab in Hawaii, where the forensic dentists are based.

Hayden’s remains consisted largely of his skull, jaw bones and teeth. DPAA experts said it is possible that more of his bones may be identified in the future.

An anthropologist who worked on Hayden’s case remarked that, almost 75 years after the devastating attack at Pearl Harbor, “a strong petrochemical odor emanates from the remains.”