Seaman 2nd Class Charles L. Saunders
Sonny Boy’s Journey Home
Charles Louis Saunders (Sonny Boy) lost his life on December 7, 1941, but his miraculous journey to return to Texas has continued.
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.
There were 390 servicemen, including Sonny Boy, recovered from the ship by divers and salvaging crews as the USS Oklahoma was prepared for righting and was refloated. This salvaging occurred from July 15, 1942 through May 10, 1944. They were initially buried at the Halawa and Nu’uanu Cemetaries. In September 1947, the American Graves Registration Service disinterred the original burial sites and moved the remains to the Schofield Barracks Central Identification Laboratory in efforts to confirm identifications and return these men to their families. Congress and veteran organizations placed a great deal of pressure on the military in 1947 to find a permanent burial site. That permanent burial site was at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific also known as the Punchbowl and the first interment was made on January 4, 1949. The 390 unknown members of the USS Oklahoma were buried in 61 caskets in 45 mass grave locations.
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.
Anna Belle, the last living sibling of Sonny Boy, had a strong passion for bringing her brother home and laying him to rest at the gravesite their parents prepared for him at the Fairview Cemetery in Winnie, Texas. Records indicate Mortimer Alvin (Sonny Boy’s father) ordered Sonny Boy’s headstone on September 30, 1964.
Up until the last day of her life (July 19, 2019), Anna Belle (Sonny Boy’s sister) 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 service and death are memorialized in several locations. His name is on the Walls of the Missing at the Punchbowl where a rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate his remains have been identified.
The USS Oklahoma Memorial, dedicated on December 7, 2007, on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor is next to the former birth of the USS Oklahoma. The memorial’s black granite walls suggest the once formidable hull of the ship. Each member has a white marble standard engraved with their name that symbolizes an individual in pristine white dress uniform, inspired from the naval tradition of “manning the rails”.
A granite wall listing the crew on the USS Oklahoma and an anchor from the ship are displayed in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma as a tribute to those who perished when the ship capsized.
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.
Sonny Boy’s arrival will be welcomed by many family members and friends. Sonny Boy’s nieces and nephews welcoming him home include the following:
Children of Anna Belle Saunders VonFeldt – Gloria VonFeldt Vierra (represented by her daughter Cindy throughout this process), Barry VonFeldt, Leslie VonFeldt Dunker, Mike VonFeldt, John VonFeldt, Freddie VonFeldt, Kami VonFeldt Ulricksen, and Jeff VonFeldt
Child of Lillie Mae Saunders Franklin – Neica Lynn Franklin Bertrand
Child of Mary Alice Saunders Frankland – Sue Frankland Melancon
Children of Mortimer Virgil Saunders – Jackie Saunders Waller and Karen Saunders Dooley
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.
Graveside Service with Military Honors
- , , Winnie, TX, 77665,
- December 7, 2021
- 10:30 am