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Navy opposes USS Oklahoma exhumations to identify remains

Righting operations on the capsized USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor in March, 1943.

WASHINGTON — The Navy has notified family members of sailors who died aboard the USS Oklahoma during the attack on Pearl Harbor that it opposes any further testing to identify the remains.

In a letter dated May 21, Russell Beland, deputy assistant secretary for military manpower and personnel, told families the Navy prefers not to disturb the commingled remains of 330 unidentified sailors buried in multiple graves at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, informally known as the Punchbowl Cemetery, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Stars and Stripes.

Beland wrote that the Navy is also proposing the ceremonial reburial of about 100 more sets of Oklahoma remains disinterred in 2003 as part of an unsuccessful identification effort.

The letter reasserts the Navy’s opposition to the troubled Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which is proposing the exhumation of more Oklahoma remains as a way to boost the identification rate of American troops still listed as missing in action since World War II.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered an overhaul of JPAC in February following a series of scandals including the mishandling of remains and fraudulent repatriation ceremonies but no details of future changes have yet been released.

“The sailors and Marines of USS Oklahoma would be outside the sanctity of the grave for a third time following their heroic sacrifice at Pearl Harbor,” Beland wrote in the letter. “Additionally, a full DNA testing and accounting could take many years and likely leave many of the missing still unaccounted for.”

The Navy not only opposes exhuming more remains but prefers to bury approximately 100 sets of Oklahoma remains that JPAC has been unable to identify over the past decade, Beland said. Those remains could be laid to rest in a ceremony on the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, in 2016.

Any final decision on the disinterment of Oklahoma remains will require decisions by the Army, which has next-of-kin notification responsibility for the Punchbowl in Hawaii, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to the Navy.

John Byrd, director of JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in April that “more likely than not, we’re going to get the green light” to disinter the unidentified remains despite the Navy’s dissent. The accounting command has been ordered by Congress to identify 200 remains per year by 2015 but has so far fell far below that goal.

The outcome is likely to be final closure for the Oklahoma and its unidentified crew members, who died when the ship was hit with Japanese bombs and torpedoes and capsized in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

 

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