World War II veteran laid to rest after eight decades
By Kris Leonhardt
GREEN BAY – A World War II soldier with Green Bay roots was laid to rest May 29 in Mt. Vernon Cemetery outside Juda, just east of Monroe.
The burial comes over eight decades after Seaman Second Class David Joseph Riley lost his life on the USS Oklahoma during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.
Riley was born on Feb. 18, 1916, in Green Bay.
His parents are listed in census records as George F. and Ethel J. Riley, but little is known about his childhood until the age of 11 when he became the foster son of Elmer and Della Asmus of Juda.
His distant cousin, Deb Krauss Smith, is one of the closest relatives to Riley.
“He’s not a biological cousin; my great-granduncle would be his foster father. He became my great-granduncle and aunt’s foster child when he was 11 years old, and they had no other children. David was their only child. And so there are no other descendants from that family one and, of course, David died before he married, you know? So, those of us who are left are just cousins a couple of generations removed and we’re foster cousins,” Krauss Smith stated.
“Just recently I found out he was born in 1916. And I recently found a record where his parents weren’t actually married until 1918. So, either the father that’s listed in the 1920 census is not his biological father or they just married after he was born; we just don’t know. And then somewhere in the early 20s or mid-20s, the parents divorced. And somehow then David ended up in foster care.
“You know, it was kind of on the eve of the Depression starting, so we don’t know what the circumstances were, but I do have documentation that he was placed through an agency at Children’s Home Society in Madison. And that’s how he ended up with my uncle and aunt.”
Riley attended high school until his sophomore year and worked at a bakery and a café on Monroe.
Before enlisting in the Navy, Riley served in the Wisconsin National Guard Company K.
Riley then signed up to serve for six years with the Navy, and after a short leave in July 1940, he was assigned to the USS Oklahoma.
He was one of the 429 sailors who died aboard the battleship after it was sunk by Japanese aircraft.
His remains were listed as unrecoverable and unaccounted for until February 2021 when the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency used forensic technology to identify remains.
“It wasn’t until 2021 — between the months of June and November in 2021 — that the sailors’ remains were exhumed,” explained Krauss Smith.
“They had been interred in actually a couple of different cemeteries in Hawaii, the skeletal remains thrown in caskets.
“And when it started doing this, they thought there would be like maybe four or five sailors remains in a casket and when they started analyzing them, using DNA, they found there were hundreds in one casket.
“They use professional genealogists to find a paper trail to identify any remaining biological family that might be out there. And so that’s what they did with David; and because with all of the military, when they returned remains somewhere, the biological family has first dibs on it — I guess you’d say I don’t know what other word to use — but you don’t have the first opportunity to reclaim those remains.
“Then, they get a DNA swab from the biological person that they’ve identified, and then match that to the remains to verify that is the family.
“They found a distant maternal relative of his that doesn’t even live in Wisconsin. And when it came right down to it, this person said, ‘Well, we don’t know who he is; we didn’t know he ever existed.’
“So, they declined the opportunity to [handle] his remains.
In the fall of 2021, Krauss Smith was contacted on Facebook by someone asking if she was David Riley’s cousin.
The individual contacting her was connected with the Wisconsin Patriot Guard Riders – a veterans group that assists with the burial of Wisconsin veterans.
“If it had not been for that initial contact, I would not have known anything about this at all,” Krauss Smith stated.
The Wisconsin Patriot Guard Riders work to ensure that military veterans and public service veterans are laid to rest with “dignity and respect,” which is completed by 1,400 volunteers across the state.
While the Navy searched for biological family members, Krauss Smith was doing some research of her own.
“In the meantime, I had put together a lot of documentation using information from a couple of historians in Juda and also from the Green County Historical Society… I was able to document that, yes indeed he was a foster child of my aunt and uncle and had the paperwork from Madison from the agency that he came from and other things that just corroborated that this is where he lived and this was his home,” she said.
Krauss Smith made contact with the Navy in August of 2021
“Of course, they have to do everything on their end, but it was months and months and months and nothing was happening,” she said.
“Every couple of months, I would check in with the Navy and they’d say, ‘Oh, we’re working on it.’
“It wasn’t until Nov. 10, 2022, that I finally got a call from the Navy telling me that I had been designated as what they call the person authorized to direct disposition, which translated means he got to come home, he gets to come back to Juda.”
In December, personnel from the Navy Casualty Office in Tennessee came to Wisconsin to meet with her and explain how Riley was identified and help set up a memorial and burial.
“For anybody waiting for word on a service member from their family whose remains were unrecoverable, it is a wait anyway. His was especially complicated because there was no biological family, it was a foster family. So, that just makes it a little more dicey,” Krauss Smith explained.
On May 29, Riley was honored during a memorial service held at Juda High School and was inurned alongside his foster parents, who passed in 1960 and 1976.
The service brings to close an eight decades-long homeward journey for Riley.
“I think he had unfortunate circumstances throughout his life, you know? We don’t know for sure, but there’s a good chance that his childhood was not the greatest and then being put in foster care,” Krauss Smith said.
“And it seemed like when he entered the Navy that maybe he was really finding his niche and his way there because before he died, before Pearl Harbor, he had sent a letter back to one of his foster cousins here. [The] letter indicated that he was realizing the seriousness of life and all the opportunities he had missed thus far, and he intended to make that right when he got out of the Navy. But he never had the opportunity to do that. So in a way, it’s kind of a sad story.
“I think, you know, he was just coming into his own and didn’t get the opportunity to do that. But, the positive side is the community he came from Juda is small; it’s like 400 people, it’s unincorporated.
“That was his community, whether he realized it or not. And all of these years, you know, 81 years later, they’ve never forgotten him.”
On May 26, Gov. Tony Evers ordered the flags of the United States and the state of Wisconsin to be flown at half-staff in honor of Riley.
“The attack on Pearl Harbor changed the trajectory of World War II and our state and country, taking the lives of more than 50 Wisconsinites, including Navy Seaman Second Class Riley,” Evers said. “We are grateful for the effort to ensure that Navy Seaman Second Class Riley’s remains were returned so he can be laid to rest in Wisconsin. On behalf of his home state, we honor him for his service and sacrifice to this nation and the values we hold dear.”
Monroe’s American Legion Post No. 84 was renamed the Zilmer-Riley post in 1947, in Riley’s honor.