Each Memorial Day weekend for the past 55 years, Dr. Joseph Young has been going to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl to place a lei on the gravestone of a man he’d never met. The lei was always made of yellow and pink plumeria picked from his yard.
Yesterday, under a glorious blue sky and with his wife, Barbara, by his side, Young made what he believes will be his final trip to the grave of 2nd Lt. John Leroy Dains, a young fighter pilot killed by friendly fire on Dec. 7, 1941, as he was defending the skies over Oahu.
"It’s closure," said Young, 85.
Call it a promise fulfilled.
In the early 1950s, Young was the only person from Hawaii, and the only Asian, attending dental school at Washington University in St. Louis. One of the first friends he made was his roommate, David Dains.
During holidays, David Dains would invite his friend from Kaimuki to his family home in Mount Olive, Ill., about 50 miles from St. Louis.
At one of those meals in Mount Olive, Young said, David Dains and his father, Leroy, spoke about how they were sending $5 every year to a local florist to have flowers sent to Punchbowl to be placed on the grave of John Leroy Dains, David’s older brother.
Young told the family that they could hold on to the $5 a year after he returned to Honolulu to open his dental office. Besides the Memorial Day visits, Young has taken a poinsettia plant to the grave around Christmastime each year.
It was a gesture of appreciation to a family that had become his family away from home, Young said. The Hawaii dentist, in his own way, was ensuring the tragic pilot had his own family away from home.
Because many of those buried at Punchbowl are not from Hawaii, only a minority of graves are visited personally. Yesterday, only one other grave in the immediate area of Dains’ had a recently placed lei.
(The city and the Office of Veterans Affairs are urgently asking to help sew 15,000 lei by 1 p.m. today so that each of the 40,000 graves at Punchbowl will have one on Memorial Day.)
But Young said he was thinking about more than just that when he made his promise to the Dains family. "I told Leroy Dains it was an honor to do something like this for a hero who died protecting our country."
On the morning of the Dec. 7 attack, Young, 16, was catching shrimp at Kuapa Pond, which was managed by his father. He joined the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1945 and was stationed at Hickam Field and the Philippines but did not see combat.
Dentist David Dains, who had a wife and four children along with a successful practice in Huntington Beach, Calif., died last fall. He was 82.
David Dains brought his family to Hawaii once, about 20 years ago, to visit his brother’s grave. Young said he last saw his classmate at a 2005 reunion in St. Louis, although they talked often by telephone.
Young, who also has four children, including two who are dentists and one who is a veterinarian, said he feels the death of his longtime friend marks a natural juncture to bring his long-standing commitment to an end.
"It’s time," he said.
It’s undisputed that John Leroy Dains, the young lieutenant killed over Wheeler Field on Dec. 7, died a hero trying to defend Hawaii from Japanese attack planes.
Daniel Martinez, chief historian at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbor, which includes the Arizona Memorial, said Dains "unquestionably, was one of the bravest pilots we had."
A relatively small number of American pilots managed to get into fighter planes and into the air that day. Records showed Dains, of the 47th Pursuit Squadron based at Wheeler Army Airfield, was among the first. The 21-year-old flew a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk for two sorties and returned to the air field with the plane littered with bullet holes, Martinez said.
"According to some of the stories, a flight mechanic refused to let him fly that airplane again because they didn’t feel it was flight-worthy due to the damage to it," he said. "So he gets in a P-36 and the last thing we know … is that he would be shot down by friendly fire."
Because he expended a lot of ammunition, "some people have made the supposition that he must have shot something down," Martinez said. But to date, he said, "there’s just no credible evidence that he shot down anyone."
Regardless, Dains was awarded a Silver Star and Purple Heart posthumously for his actions that day.
The citation for his Silver Star reads: "Lieutenant Dains’ undaunted courage and determined action contributed to a large extent toward driving off the sudden enemy air attack."
Air Force 2nd Lt. Harry Brown, who sped a jeep through cane fields with Dains in the passenger seat toward fighter planes based at a secondary base in Haleiwa on Dec. 7, survived the day and was credited with downing one of the Japanese Zero planes. In a letter to Dains’ family in the days after the Pearl Harbor attack, Brown wrote of his best friend: "He died as he wanted to die — fighting and laughing to the last. He gave his life for his country — he died a true hero’s death."
"To think that he came back with a pretty much crippled aircraft and then climbed into another aircraft to go and tangle again with the enemy," Martinez said. "That’s the legacy of Johnny Dains. Incredible bravery."