Charles Louis “Sonny Boy” Saunders lost his life when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the 18-year-old’s body has finally arrived at his hometown of Winnie, Texas, where he will be laid to rest 80 years to the day after he died serving his country.
KTRK in Winnie Texas reported on Saunder’s amazing journey home:
Last week, the body of Navy Seaman 2nd Class Charles L. Saunders arrived at Bush Intercontinental Airport. The Chambers County Sheriff’s Office then escorted the hero’s body to Winnie.
The attack on USS Oklahoma resulted in the deaths of 429 crewmen, including Saunders. While his body was recovered, it would take decades before he was identified.
The remains would eventually move to a permanent burial site at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific also known as the Punchbowl. Three hundred-ninety members of the USS Oklahoma were buried in 61 caskets in 45 mass grave locations.
The news outlet reported it is thanks to Saunders’ surviving sibling, Anna Bell, for his homecoming even if she did not live to see her brother’s return. She died in 2019 and Suanders’ remains were finally identified on Feb. 11, 2021.
Saunders’ obituary provides more details about a young man who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country. It says, in part:
Sonny Boy was born to Mortimer Alvin and Melina Falke Saunders on October 16, 1923. He was a very caring, kind, and playful child growing up. In fact, his desire to join the navy just one month after his seventeenth birthday on November 23, 1940, exuberates these characteristics. He had a desire to serve his country but an even greater desire to help his family.
Sonny Boy was the sixth child born to his parents and one of four boys. His oldest brother Adam died at just thirteen months of age. His older sisters were Lillie Mae Saunders Franklin, Mary Alice Saunders Frankland, and Sadie Lee Saunders Dailey. His older brother was Sidney (Buddy) Edward Saunders. Born after Sonny Boy was his sister Anna Belle Saunders VonFeldt and brother Mortimer Virgil Saunders.
Times were difficult growing up as Mortimer Alvin (Sonny Boy’s father) worked in construction and in the rice fields to support his family while Melina (Sonny Boy’s mother) raised children.
Sonny Boy’s strong compassion for giving to others is remembered in a story told by his younger sister Anna Belle. He would do without so she could have shoes to make the daily walk to school. He could not bear to see his little sister struggle in any manner.
He was playful with his younger brother (Mortimer Virgil) as he fooled him into believing his belly button was a scar from being shot in the belly with an arrow.
Sonny Boy served as a Seaman, Second Class on the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor on Ford Island in Hawaii. He was one of 429 sailors and marines who were killed when the USS Oklahoma was moored in the December 7 attack by Japanese forces.
At the time of Sonny Boy’s death his brother Buddy was serving in the army and was stationed at Camp Beauregard, Louisiana. He had enlisted at age 28 in July 1941, just months before Sonny Boy’s death.
Medals and ribbons are awarded to servicemen who give their life during their service. Sonny Boy was awarded a Purple Heart for Military Merit and three ribbons for American Defense, American Campaign, and Asiatic Pacific Campaign.
These awards were almost a lost memory. After the funeral of Melina Falke Saunders (Sonny Boy’s mother) family members were cleaning out the family home preparing items for an auction. Someone happened to open a sewing machine where an old dusty box was found. In the box were Sonny Boy’s awards.
Up until the last day of her life (July 19, 2019), Anna Belle never lost hope that her brother would be brought back home to Texas. It was written in her obituary that her advocacy to bring her brother home after all these years will be continued by all who survive her.
This passion became reality in 2015 when a niece (Neica Franklin Bertrand) of Sonny Boy’s was contacted by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). They had tracked her down through her mother’s death records (Lillie Mae Saunders Franklin). In 2015 the DPAA was given authorization to exhume the unknown remains of the servicemen associated with the USS Oklahoma and reexamine them using advanced forensic technology.
It was at that point the military connected with Anna Belle. She worked tirelessly with them by gathering and providing DNA of family members to make a positive identity of Sonny Boy’s remains. She attended the Family Update provided by the DPAA in Denver, Colorado on May 16, 2015, and continued frequent contact as the efforts continued. She always felt a responsibility for Sonny Boy’s death because of his desire to make life better for his parents and younger siblings during their hard times and enlisted to make this happen.
On February 11, 2021, the DPAA notified Sonny Boy’s relatives that the remains of Seaman Second Class Charles Louis Saunders, missing from World War II, had been identified. Laboratory analysis and the totality of circumstantial evidence available identified Sonny Boy’s remains. Scientists used dental and anthropological analysis and mitochondrial and autosomal DNA analysis.
Sonny Boy’s journey began with a dedication to his family and his country. His family is sure that his service included laughter and adventure and for that we are thankful. It is more than likely he perished while helping others. But most of all we, the many nieces and nephews, of this genuine hero are grateful to welcome him back to Texas on December 7, 2021, eighty years after his death where he will be buried next to his parents.
“A graveside service with military honors for Seaman 2nd Class Charles L. Saunders will be held 10:30 a.m., Tuesday, December 7, 2021, at Fairview Cemetery, Winnie, under the direction of Broussard’s, 2000 McFaddin Avenue, Beaumont,” the obituary posted online stated.
People who wrote on the obituary page praised Saunders’ service but one seems to sum up the sentiment: “Welcome home and God bless you.”
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