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MIA lab, Navy at odds over exhuming unknown USS Oklahoma casualties

The grave of an unidentified Pearl Harbor casualty at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

HONOLULU — The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command wants to take the unprecedented step of exhuming all of the Dec. 7, 1941, casualties of the USS Oklahoma buried as "unknowns" at Punchbowl cemetery — more than 330 crew members — to help it reach a higher number of annual identifications mandated by Congress.

But the Hawaii-based military command, known as JPAC, is getting resistance from the Navy, which prefers to maintain the "sanctity" of the graves at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, officials said.

Further, the Navy would like to take the partial and commingled remains of more than 100 Oklahoma crew members who were disinterred in 2003 from a single casket at Punchbowl, possibly re­bury them at a memorial and grave site to be created on Ford Island, and invite family members to an interment ceremony on Dec. 7, 2014.

JPAC, on the other hand, said it also wants to disinter and try to identify crewmen from the battleships California and West Virginia.

"We've actually already done most of the legwork on the request for the California and the West Virginia and some of the others," said John Byrd, director of JPAC's Central Identification Laboratory. "So we have gotten our ducks in a row to pursue those, but we're waiting for the Okla­homa issue to move forward before we proceed with the others."

There are other unknowns who Byrd said may be candidates for exhumation, including about 100 casualties from the Battle of Tarawa in 1943 and nearly 400 service members, mostly soldiers, who died in 1945 as captives on the Japanese "hell ship" Enoura Maru.

The contradictory JPAC and Navy goals have set up a conflict that might be settled by an unlikely party: the Army, which actually has "next-of-kin" authority over all unknowns at Punchbowl, regardless of service.

Paul Goodyear, a 95-year-old survivor of the Oklahoma who was aboard when it was pounded by Japanese torpedoes, is a strong proponent of exhuming his shipmates.

"About 135 percent," Goodyear said of the interest level in identifications. "Not only amongst the families, but amongst the little towns, the communities that these kids came from."

Goodyear said he has seen entire towns turn out with banners and fire trucks for the return of missing service members from World War II.

"I cannot tell you how many brothers and sisters, grandsons and granddaughters are just dying to have those kids home," the Arizona man said.

JPAC, headquartered at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, was established to investigate, search for and identify Americans missing from past wars as an extension of the soldier's creed to leave no man behind.

The pace of that effort has come under fire in recent years, with JPAC averaging only about 69 identifications a year and the families of the missing growing old and dying.

In the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress required JPAC to make 200 identifications annually by 2015.

Technology and procedural advancements have made it possible to identify a greater number of unknowns from Punchbowl, JPAC said.

A recent Government Accountability Office study reported JPAC as saying that it has the potential to achieve more than 100 identifications from disinterments annually, but only to the extent that disinterments are not a detriment to JPAC's field operations worldwide.

JPAC can make recoveries from Punchbowl, which is practically in its backyard, at a fraction of the cost needed for overseas missions to remote locations.

Several months ago JPAC made a request to the Army to disinter all of the more than 330 Okla­homa crew members whose remains are commingled — meaning the bones of many individuals are together — and buried in more than 50 graves at Punchbowl, said Byrd, the lab director.

The plan is to lay out the remains at a $5 million satellite lab opened by JPAC in June at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. So far, JPAC has received no word back from the Army, Byrd said.

"The Navy leadership, secretary of the Navy's office, from what we understand, is against it," Byrd said. "Now, they don't have the ultimate authority — the Army has the authority — but the Army, as a courtesy, has gone to the Navy and asked them what is their feeling on this. ‘Do you want to do it or not?' And I think the Navy said no."

The Navy confirmed it is opposed to the disinterments. The service contends that during any identification process the unknown sailors and Marines would be "outside the sanctity of the grave" again (they were buried in Nuuanu or Halawa before being moved to Punchbowl) and that DNA testing and accounting could take many years and still leave some crew members unidentified.

Still, the Navy can only make a recommendation to the Army.

Punchbowl Director Gene Castagnetti said Army Secretary John McHugh visited the cemetery recently and "was very interested in trying to fulfill the congressional mandate (of 200 identifications annually)."

Castagnetti said there are 466 unknowns at Punchbowl from the Dec. 7, 1941, attack; 2,090 total from World War II; and 810 from the Korean War.

JPAC expects it will have made 40 Korean War disinterments this fiscal year, which runs through September.

Research by Pearl Harbor survivor Ray Emory, who lives in Kahala, led to the 2003 disinterment of a USS Okla­homa casket with commingled remains. Five crew members were identified and sent home to families.

But incomplete sets of bones of more than 100 men were also were found, complicating further identifications and putting the brakes on other exhumations from the ship, which represents the single largest group of buried unknowns from the Pearl Harbor attack.

Robert Newberry, then-deputy assistant secretary of defense for POW/ Missing Personnel Affairs, wrote in a 2009 memo that disinterment of additional Oklahoma caskets would not occur until progress was made identifying those already exhumed.

"Identifying the remains of unknowns already recovered and buried with honor in U.S. national cemeteries at home and abroad must take a lower priority" than recovering Americans "that still lie in the foreign countries in which they fell," he added.

The JPAC lab's Byrd said identity data exist for as many as 20 more individuals out of that one exhumed Oklahoma casket.

"But you know, the lab's position is that we don't want to make any more identifications until we exhume the rest of the (Oklahoma) remains and do a proper (bones) segregation," he said.

The Navy would prefer to bury the remains of those 100 crew members, possibly on Ford Island in conjunction with a memorial.

"Obviously, we want to identify those remains and return them to their families, so we wouldn't necessarily be in favor of that," said JPAC spokes­man Lee Tucker.

The technology exists now to identify many of the Oklahoma unknowns, and JPAC has developed standard operating procedures for working on large quantities of remains with Korean War casualties, Byrd said.

Emotions remain high among veterans and family members.

"I hope they do (disinter the Okla­homa unknowns)," Goodyear said. "I hope to God they do, because we can name at least 20 of those unknowns."

Eighty-year-old Bob Valley, a Michigan resident who lost his 19-year-old brother, Lowell, on the Okla­homa and is part of the USS Oklahoma Family Inc. group, would also like to see the Okla­homa unknowns disinterred.

His brother was a fireman down in the boiler room on the port side, which he said took the brunt of nine to 12 torpedoes. Eventually the big ship rolled on its side.

"I've talked to some of the other firemen that survived and they were on the other side … and they said those guys never had a chance. I mean, they were killed instantly with those torpedoes," Valley said. "That's all that we've been able to find out, because he's just (missing in action)."

If all the Oklahoma casualties are disinterred, there's a possibility his brother could be identified.

"I'd love to bring my brother home," Valley said.
 

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