After 75 years, remains of 5 USS Oklahoma sailors are identified
By Michael E. Ruane | The Washington Post | Published: January 11, 2016
WASHINGTON — Almost 75 years after they were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor, the remains of five U.S. sailors who perished when their battleship was sunk, have been identified, the Pentagon said Monday.
The five men, who were exhumed last year from their graves in Hawaii and examined in special military laboratories, were among 429 sailors and Marines killed when the USS Oklahoma was torpedoed and capsized.
They had been buried as "unknowns."
The battleship's loss of life at Pearl Harbor was second only to the 1,100 lost on the USS Arizona, whose wreck remains a hallowed Pearl Harbor historic site.
The men identified were Chief Petty Officer Albert E. Hayden, 44, of Mechanicsville, Md., in St. Mary's County; Ensign Lewis. S Stockdale, 27, of Anaconda, Mont.; Seaman 2nd Class Dale F. Pearce, 21, of Labette County, Kan.; Petty Officer 1st Class Vernon T. Luke, 43, of Green Bay, Wisc.; and Chief Petty Officer Duff Gordon, 52, of Hudson, Wisc.
The Oklahoma had a complement of about 1,300, including 77 Marines.
The identifications are the first to come from a project that began last April when the Defense Department announced plans to exhume an estimated 388 of the Oklahoma's unknowns.
The effort was sparked after researcher and Pearl Harbor survivor Ray Emory, in 2003, used National Archives files to get officials to dig up a casket believed to contain an Oklahoma sailor's remains.
That sailor, Ensign Eldon Wyman, was duly identified, and in 2007 a second casket was unearthed and the remains within were also identified as an Oklahoma sailor.
The remains were returned to their families.
The latest identifications were made by comparing pre-war dental records with the teeth of the exhumed sailors, said Air Force Lt. Col. Holly Slaughter, spokeswoman for the Pentagon's newly created Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), which is doing the work.
During the Dec. 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, which plunged the U.S. into World War II, many Oklahoma sailors jumped overboard as the battleship rolled over in about 50 feet of water.
But hundreds were trapped below decks.
Thirty-two were rescued by intrepid crews who heard them banging for help, cut into the hull and made their way through a maze of darkened, flooded compartments to reach them.
Others managed to escape by swimming underwater to find their way out. Some trapped sailors tried to stem the in-rushing water with rags and even the board from a board game. One distraught man tried to drown himself.
In the months, and years, after the attack, the handling of the crew's remains was plagued by error, confusion and poor record keeping.
Most of the dead were found in the wreckage during the months-long salvage operation, especially after the Oklahoma was righted in 1943, according to a memo by DPAA historian Heather Harris.
By then, the bodies had been reduced to skeletons.
By 1944, the jumbled skeletons, saturated with fuel oil from the ship, had been buried as unknowns in two Hawaiian cemeteries, Harris's report said.
Three years later, they were dug up and taken to a military laboratory near Pearl Harbor for attempted identification.
The chief tool then also was the comparison of the dental records with the teeth of the deceased. And 27 tentative identifications were made, but they were rejected as incomplete by the authorities.
Gordon, Hayden, Luke, and Stockdale were among those 27, Slaughter said in an email.
In 1949, all the remains were formally declared unidentifiable. And by 1950, they had been reburied in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, often called the Punchbowl, in Honolulu.
There they rested until last year.
The first exhumations took place June 8, and the last four caskets were dug up Nov. 9.
Sixty-one rusty caskets, still with their carrying handles, were retrieved from 45 graves. The caskets were heavily corroded and had to be forced open with mauls and crowbars.
After the remains were removed, they were cleaned and photographed, and most of them were flown to the DPAA lab in Nebraska for further analysis. Skulls were retained in a DPAA lab in Hawaii, where forensic dentists are based.