On 80th Anniversary, Mission To Identify Pearl Harbor Dead Comes to an End

December 7, 2021Hannah Ray Lambert
Pearl Harbor remains

Sailors assigned to Navy Region Hawaii and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency conduct a funeral for US Navy Bandmaster James B. Booe, 42, of Veedersburg, Indiana, at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii, June 1, 2021. Booe was assigned to the USS Oklahoma, which sustained fire from Japanese aircraft and multiple torpedo hits, causing the ship to capsize and resulting in the deaths of more than 400 crew members on Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Michael O’Neal.

On the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency is closing down the program that has identified nearly 400 men killed aboard the USS Oklahoma. The final remains have now been returned to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.

“Even more remarkable than the collective success of this project are all the families who were able to receive the remains of their loved one, whose last measure of devotion was made aboard the Oklahoma,” DPAA Director Kelly McKeague wrote in a press release in June.

During the Dec. 7, 1941, attack, the USS Oklahoma sustained multiple torpedo hits and capsized, killing 429 crewmen. The loss of life aboard the ship was second only to the 1,177 men killed on the battleship Arizona, most of whom remain entombed forever aboard the sunken ship, which is now designated as a national shrine.

Following the attack, the US military was only able to identify 35 bodies from the Oklahoma’s wreckage. After moving the unidentified remains several times, the military buried them in 1950 in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific — a location colloquially known as the “punchbowl” because of its location within a volcanic crater.

Pearl Harbor remains
The USS Oklahoma capsized during the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, killing 429 crewmen. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has spent the last six years examining Pearl Harbor remains and has identified more than 90% of the previously unidentified remains. US Navy photo.

As the decades passed and new forensic technologies were invented, several of the Oklahoma’s Gold Star families petitioned the Department of Defense to resume efforts to identify the dead. In 2003, the Defense Department authorized the DPAA to analyze a single casket of interred, unknown remains from the Oklahoma. The rest of the project hinged on the test results from that lone sample.

“[The sample] showed that a majority of the unaccounted for were still missing and buried in the punchbowl, all heavily commingled,” forensic anthropologist Traci Van Deest told Coffee or Die Magazine’s Lauren Coontz in an interview. About a quarter of all the unidentified crewmen were represented in the remains contained within that one casket, according to the test results.

In 2015, the Defense Department finally granted the lab approval to exhume all of the Oklahoma’s buried dead for analysis.

Initially, the DPAA estimated it could identify some 80% of the Oklahoma’s personnel. The agency recently updated that figure to 90% and surpassed that, too — investigators identified 361 of the 394 crew members by the end of the project, according to Politico.

Forensic anthropologist Traci Van Deest analyzes material evidence inside the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Offutt Laboratory Dec. 12, 2019, at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. US Air Force photo by Charles J. Haymond.

On Tuesday morning, 80 years after the attack, the final unidentified remains will be reburied in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

“It marks the end of the project, of all the work that we’ve been doing,” Carrie B. LeGarde, the program’s lead DPAA forensic anthropologist, told The Washington Post. “Not to say that identifications [couldn’t] still occur someday in the future. But our active effort will be over.”

DPAA scientists use dental, forensic, and anthropological analysis to form an identification hypothesis. They then send samples to the Armed Forces Medical Examiner Service for DNA testing in which a section of a long bone is compared with a DNA sample from a blood relative of the suspected service member.

When the DNA matches, the Department of Defense contacts mortuary affairs to arrange a funeral and honors for the service member. The service members, already recorded in the Courts of the Missing at the punchbowl, then have rosettes placed next to their names to signify that they have been identified.

While the USS Oklahoma mission has ended, the DPAA is still actively identifying the remains of soldiers killed at locations across the world, including in the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, and Korea.

Read More: NFL’s Donnie Edwards Takes World War II Vets Back to Their Battlefields

Hannah Ray Lambert
Hannah Ray Lambert

Hannah Ray Lambert is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die who previously covered everything from murder trials to high school trap shooting teams. She spent several months getting tear gassed during the 2020-2021 civil unrest in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working, Hannah enjoys hiking, reading, and talking about authors and books on her podcast Between Lewis and Lovecraft.

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