By Sarah Harris Church News
World War II U.S. Navy veteran Clayton James “Jim” Kearl, 96, was the first Utahn to present a wreath at the Memorial Day Observance at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Monday, May 29.
Veterans from each branch of service present a wreath at Freedom Wall on Memorial Day to pay tribute to more than 400,000 Americans who died in military service during World War II. Only a few veterans are chosen each year to present wreaths at the memorial, according to Barbara Brown, Kearl’s daughter.
“It’s a great honor for all of us,” Brown said. “I feel like it’s kind of an accumulation of his great life. What a great way to celebrate his 96 years of life — to be honored to do this with something that was such a big part of his life.”
Kearl fought in all but one battle of the Pacific during World War II, serving aboard the USS Salt Lake City. He said receiving this honor has brought back many memories.
He said he remembers watching from his ship as the Marines raised the American flag on Iwo Jima, as pictured in a well-known Associated Press photo by Joe Rosenthal.
“That was a sacred moment,” Kearl said.
Upon command of his captain to tune into their radio frequency, Kearl also heard the communication of the Enola Gay crew members as they flew over Hiroshima.
“We heard them talking, and the navigator said, ‘Five, four, three, two, one, there she goes,’ and they dropped the first atomic bomb,” Kearl said.
A spiritual experience Kearl said he remembers from his time in the Navy happened at the Battle of the Komandorski Islands. Kearl said at that time, he was in charge of seeing that the crew had all the equipment they needed for their radars.
One day when a radar went out, he walked to another part of the ship to get the parts he needed to fix it and stopped to talk to some friends he saw there.
“The still, small voice said, ‘Get going,’ and I ignored it,” Kearl said. “The second time, it said, ‘Get going.’ Then the third time, I found myself on the deck below running back out.”
Kearl said when he came back later, he saw that part of the ship had received one of the hits during the battle. Brown said she remembers her father telling this story to her and her siblings as they were growing up.
“As children, he always taught us: ‘Learn from my story. When the Spirit whispers something, you listen the first time, and not until the Spirit starts moving you,’ ” Brown said.
Kearl joined the Navy in 1942, after his cousin informed him he was to be drafted in the Army.
“What experience I’d heard and seen about the army, I wasn’t too anxious to be part of it, and we had had several boats and I loved the water,” Kearl said. “I guess maybe it was just meant for me and I was meant for the [Navy].”
One week earlier, Kearl had made a marriage proposal to his future wife, Betty Loraine Ford. They met in November 1941 while Kearl was visiting his sister in Salt Lake City.
“I was looking for a young lady with brown eyes and black hair, and she fit the bill,” Kearl said.
She waited faithfully for him, and they resolved the next time Kearl came home on leave, they’d get married. She said she was home praying when she got word of his leave, and they had three days to throw together the wedding.
Now, after 73 years of married life, the Kearls have seven children, 35 grandchildren and 68 great-grandchildren. Jim Kearl said it has been fun to watch his family grow over the years.
“We’ve been blessed with such a good posterity,” Betty Kearl said.
Jim and Betty Kearl have devoted much of their lives to serving in the Church. They served six LDS missions together: in New York, on Temple Square, as directors of the Mormon Battalion Visitor’s Center in San Diego and three consecutive missions driving a van shuttle from the Salt Lake International Airport to Temple Square.
“They told me the other day they only have one regret, and that’s that they’re too old — they won’t let them serve any more missions,” Brown said.
Jim Kearl also served for many years in positions as a bishop’s counselor, bishop, stake presidency member and high councilor.
“For 27 years straight, [Betty] sat in the audience with the seven children, and I was on the stand,” Jim Kearl said. “I honor her for that.”
Betty Kearl has also served in numerous Relief Society, Young Women and Primary presidencies throughout her life. As she looks back on her service in the Church, she said she only wishes she could have done more.
A highlight of Jim Kearl’s life, he said, was being able to install carpet and drapery in LDS temples and chapels throughout the U.S., as floor covering was his profession from after the war until his retirement.
“At one time, he’d laid carpet in every temple except London,” said Thomas Kearl, Jim and Betty Kearl’s youngest son.
Brown said she couldn’t ask for a better father and mother.
“They are just the perfect example of what parents should be and what families should be,” Brown said.