Forensic Case Files: 74 Years Later, the Dead of Pearl Harbor Come Home

Between June 8th and November 9th, 2015, the United States Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) exhumed sixty-one caskets from forty-five grave sites at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. This action is part of a current effort to identify the hundreds of lost sailors from the USS Oklahoma, sunk on December 7, 1941, during the surprise Japanese raid that catapulted the U.S. into the Second World War. Four hundred and twenty-nine men from the Oklahoma were lost that day, but only thirty-five were identified in the years following the attack. The DPAA hopes to use modern forensic methods to identify the lost and return them to their families.

The Oklahoma boasted a crew of 1,300 on that sunny Sunday morning when planes appeared high above at 7:55 a.m. As the air raid siren screamed, men ran for the anti-aircraft batteries. But before they could make an attempt to bring down any of the incoming planes, the Oklahoma was hit by three torpedoes on the port side. The ship immediately started to list, but was then struck by another five torpedoes at 8:00 a.m. Due to the shifting position of the ship, several of the five torpedoes struck above the armor line, creating significant damage. A final torpedo hit at 8:06 a.m. as the ship continued to roll. The vessel completely capsized within twelve minutes of the first torpedo strike. Due to the speed of the attack and the considerable damage, hundreds of men were trapped inside the ship. Up top, many jumped overboard as the ship went down, while, inside, others attempted to escape through tiny portholes. However, the majority of the men trapped within the hull drowned.

Following their recovery in 1943, these men were buried in various cemeteries around Hawaii.  Later, in 1949, following the first laboratory attempt at identification, the dead sailors were moved to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

Today, many of their remains have been exhumed and lie in the DPAA lab awaiting identification through modern means. Some may be identified by dental records, still more by DNA analysis, a tool unavailable decades ago. The bones are weathered, both by months or years in oil-saturated seawater before recovery from the Oklahoma, followed by burial in Hawaiian graves. Years-long interment in Pearl Harbor reduced the bodies to mere bones, and the remains of men who died in close quarters became co-mingled. However, worse, due to an assumption in the lab during the initial unsuccessful attempts at identification that re-internment would be in a mass grave, individuals were separated and their skeletal elements grouped by type (all the skulls in one area, etc.). When the lab workers were informed that the sailors were to be buried individually and were told to reassemble the remains, they were unable to do so. As a result, a single exhumed casket can contain the remains of up to ninety-five individuals. So the task of identification will now be a considerable challenge. Modern day forensic anthropologists hope to reassemble as many sets of remains as possible; DNA will accomplish the rest.

The DPAA hopes to bring home the missing and to bring closure to families, some of who lost two or even three sons who all served on the Oklahoma. So far, seven positive identifications have been made, but family notification is still forthcoming, so no names have been released yet. It is expected the project will take five years to complete, but the agency is hopeful that a minimum of 80% of the sailors will be successfully identified.

Photo credit: National Archives and Records Administration