Sunday, 16 August 2015

Search is on to identify ‘unknown’ sailors at Pearl Harbor

As the sun broke from behind the clouds over Oahu’s Koolau mountains one recent morning, a seven-member detail of military personnel transferred five coffins, disinterred from two graves marked “unknown,” at the Punchbowl, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific here.

Off to the west was Pearl Harbor, where the men in the coffins died nearly 75 years ago.

The detail draped each coffin with a U.S. flag, saluted and placed the coffins into trucks.

“We’re not ‘mission complete’ until we return them home,” Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan, a director of public affairs for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, said of the remains of 388 sailors who died aboard the battleship Oklahoma during the Pearl Harbor attack.

Eventually, 61 coffins from 45 graves will be dug up, Morgan said, and taken to laboratories that over the next five years will use DNA and dental records to identify the remains, the names of which have long been engraved on a memorial near Pearl Harbor.

The process of searching for and identifying service members missing from World War II has been going on since the fighting ended 70 years ago, but the latest efforts have taken on a sense of urgency as the number of those who served and are still alive dwindles.

“There are unknowns around the world,” said James Horton, director of the national cemetery in Honolulu, where 2,760 unidentified service members, 1,061 from Pearl Harbor, are buried. “What makes identification very difficult is the severity of what happened, which may have made things messy, and how much more fighting there’s going on in those areas.”

“The reason they went for the Oklahoma unknowns is there is a known set of them, a fairly finite set,” he said.

Of the eight battleships attacked that Sunday in 1941, only the Oklahoma and the Arizona were damaged beyond repair. The Arizona rests below its memorial at Pearl Harbor. The Oklahoma, which capsized, was brought up two years later.

The bodies recovered from the Oklahoma were buried throughout Oahu and later transferred to the Punchbowl in 1949, after it was dedicated. Some of the remains ended up in separate coffins.

The push to identify the Oklahoma unknowns began as a quest by a Pearl Harbor survivor, Ray Emory, for better grave markers.

When Emory, 94, who was on the light cruiser Honolulu during the attack, visited the Punchbowl in 1990, a cemetery worker could not tell him where to find the sailors from the Oklahoma.

That began a quest for headstones that would distinguish Pearl Harbor unknowns from those who died in other wars or other battles. Emory then wondered if he could single out the name and grave for one Oklahoma victim.

His curiosity sent him on what would become a venture through stacks of burial records.

One file contained information about 27 service members before their reburial at the Punchbowl. Using that information, Emory located the graves of those men, and in 2003 the military agreed to exhume five of the bodies he had identified.

Encouraged, Emory reached out to family members of the remaining 22 unknowns, asking them to pressure state and national lawmakers. A letter to the Pentagon in 2014 from Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., urging the disinterment and identification of the Oklahoma unknowns went nowhere.

But a similar letter sent in February paid off. And in April, the deputy secretary of defense, Robert Work, announced plans to disinter and identify the unknown remains from the Oklahoma. The work began in June.

There are limitations. A grave with commingled remains may be dug up, the announcement said, only if it is likely that evidence can determine identities for 60 percent of the remains. A grave with a single unknown may be disinterred only if there is a 50 percent likelihood that the remains can be identified.

Remains that cannot be identified will receive a full military honors burial, Morgan said. Near the time of that burial, Morgan said, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency will determine what to do with remains without surviving or identifiable relatives.

Sunday 16 August 2015


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