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McFeely: South Dakota sailor comes home 81 years after being killed at Pearl Harbor

Laverne Nigg, from Peever, will be buried in Browns Valley, Minnesota, after his remains were finally identified.

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Laverne "Budd" Nigg of Peever, South Dakota, was killed in action on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese soldiers attacked Pearl Harbor. His remains were unidentifiable for 80 years but have been returned home after a DNA match.
Contributed photo
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FARGO — Laverne "Budd" Nigg finally came home Thursday, June 2, nearly 81 years after he was killed during the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor that thrust America into World War II. His family was at Hector International Airport awaiting his remains.

The U.S. Navy Seaman 2nd Class, born on a farm in Roberts County, South Dakota, who spent his youth around Peever, South Dakota, will be laid to rest alongside family members at Calvary Cemetery near Browns Valley, Minnesota, on Saturday.

Nigg's journey will end properly, on his home soil with full military honors. For that, we can thank modern technology.

Nigg was killed on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked the battleship on which he served, the USS Oklahoma. His parents were informed by telegram first that he was missing in action, then that he was declared dead but unrecovered.

The remains from the ship’s recovery effort were unidentifiable, and all were buried in commingled graves at National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

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Laverne "Budd" Nigg.
Contributed photo

Nigg's remains were identified through DNA forensics and on April 22, 2021, Laverne Alious Nigg was accounted for by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. DNA provided by family members matched Budd's.

"It's kind of a cool story," said Dan Nigg, whose grandfather, Merville, was one of Budd's 11 siblings. "It's amazing that 81 years later we could identify him and bring him home."

Dan Nigg was in Fargo early Thursday morning to meet Budd's casket as it arrived by airplane, along with about two dozen other family members. Budd's remains were transported to Eggers Funeral Home in Rosholt, South Dakota.

Dan Nigg and his wife Kris are just a couple of family members who've toiled for more than a year to arrange Budd's homecoming, service and burial. Since a phone call from the Navy came in April 2021 — "We've got some good news," the person on the other end said — the Nigg family has been at work.

Part of that effort has been piecing together Budd's life history and contacting the media to help spread this amazing story.

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"We are working hard to make sure he gets the homecoming he deserves and that we never forget our servicemen and women," Kris Nigg said.

The story, much of which was told in a remarkable obituary that appeared in The Forum recently, goes like this:

After growing up, attending school through eighth grade and working around the Peever and Browns Valley area, Budd enlisted in the Navy in 1940. After completing training, he was assigned to the USS Oklahoma in April 1941.

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Also on the ship, by happenstance, were three first cousins — Robert, Herbert and Edward Nigg.

The Oklahoma was moored in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7 when Japanese airplanes attacked. The ship took multiple torpedo hits and quickly capsized, killing 429 men.

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A 1941 photo of Budd, Ed and Herb Nigg. The cousins from South Dakota and Minnesota served on the USS Oklahoma, which was capsized by Japanese torpedoes in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
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One of Budd's cousins on the ship years later told family members that he saw Budd manning a gun on the Oklahoma's deck, firing at Japanese planes. The cousin looked away for a moment and when he looked back, he said Budd was laying dead on the deck. He'd apparently been hit by gunfire from a plane. He was 23 years old.

"What we figure is that when the torpedoes hit the ship, maybe he was thrown into the water or he went in when it capsized. Or maybe he was burned. And that's why they couldn't identify him," Dan Nigg said.

Budd's parents, Tony and Lillian, received a telegram on Sunday, Dec. 21, that their son was missing.

On Feb. 18, 1942, they received a telegram from the U.S. War Department that read: "After exhaustive search it has been found impossible to locate your son Laverne Alious Nigg Seaman Second Class US Navy and he has therefore being (sic) officially declared to have lost his life in the service of his country as of December seventh nineteen forty one. The department expresses to you its sincerest sympathy."

The family held a memorial service for him in Browns Valley in May 1942.

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An article from the Sisseton Courier newspaper from December 1941 reporting that Budd Nigg was missing in action.
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The task of identifying the crew of the Oklahoma and other ships damaged or sunk at Pearl Harbor began immediately after the attack and never stopped. As forensic technology improved, so did the chances of identifying remains.

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The Navy recovered deceased sailors from the Oklahoma from December 1941 to June 1944, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). They were buried in two Hawaiian cemeteries.

In 1947, the remains of U.S. casualties were disinterred from those cemeteries and transferred to a military laboratory on Oahu. Laboratory staff was able to identify only 35 men from the USS Oklahoma. The unidentified remains were buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. In 1949 the military classified those who couldn't be identified as non-recoverable, including Nigg.

In 2015, DPAA personnel exhumed the USS Oklahoma unknowns for analysis.

The DPAA said Nigg's remains were identified by scientists using dental and anthropological analysis. Additionally, scientists used mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), Y chromosome DNA (Y-STR), and autosomal DNA (auDNA) analysis.

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A telegram informing Budd Nigg's parents that their son was killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Contributed photo

Dan Nigg said several family members provided DNA to aid the effort.

"As a little kid, you'd go to your grandparents' house and there was always a picture on the wall. You'd see it and think about it, but it didn't seem real. Then this happens and really puts things in perspective," he said. "It's amazing. My grandfather Merville, Budd's brother, died in 1993. That was quite some time ago. This is kind of opening up history. It seems like, for our family, everybody is here with us again."

Budd's homecoming also fulfilled the hope of Nigg family members since deceased, including Dan Nigg's great uncle Gerald. He was Budd's last remaining brother and died in 2020.

"As he was getting older and getting ill, he'd tell me I had to be ready for this. 'It's going to happen. They're going to identify him,' he'd say. 'You have to bring him home and bury him with family, where he's supposed to be,'" Dan Nigg said.

It will happen.

Funeral Mass for Laverne Alious Nigg will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, June 4, 2022, at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Browns Valley. Burial will follow with full military honors at Calvary Cemetery near Browns Valley.

After 81 years, Budd will be back home.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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