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In search of closure: The effort to identify Hickam Field's 14 'unknowns'

The grave of an unknown servicemember at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii, July 10, 2017.

MATTHEW BRUCH/DPAA

By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: August 28, 2017

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — On Dec. 7, 1941, Cpl. Donald Meagher jumped into a damaged B-18 bomber at Hickam Field and started firing at an attacking Japanese plane with a machine gun on board.

A bomb that exploded nearby crumpled part of the plane and trapped the Army Air Forces man inside. An attempt was made to rescue Meagher, but he couldn’t be freed and he died when the bomber caught fire.

For his bravery, Meagher was awarded a Silver Star posthumously.

To this day Meagher is buried in a grave at Punchbowl cemetery that is marked “Unknown,” according to historians.

So is Pfc. Lee Clendenning, with the 23rd Bombardment Squadron, who was a cook at Hickam. His brother, Charles, was in the same squadron and also was a cook. The Clendennings were in the same building when a bomb hit during the Japanese attack.

The blast injured Charles, 26, who frantically climbed through rubble and over dead bodies to find his younger brother, 23, among the deceased.

In a twist of fate and amid the confusion that was rushed upon Hawaii following the surprise attack, 14 of Hickam’s 189 fatalities from that day were never officially identified and have never had a name on their gravestones.

Exhuming begins

Grave A1, the very first burial in 1949 at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as Punchbowl, contains one of the Hickam 14, according to Pearl Harbor survivor Ray Emory and fellow historian Jessie Higa. It reads: Unknown, December 7, 1941.

That anonymity is something that Emory, Higa and family members of the fallen would like to correct. Higa said at least 12 “unknown” graves at Punchbowl contain the Hickam casualties. Which Hickam service members are in those graves is still unclear.

Lee Clendenning, 64, who was named after his uncle, lives in the same small town where his father and uncle are from, Rib Lake, Wis., and even goes by the same nickname as his uncle — “Butch” — said he’d like the Defense Department to disinter and properly identify his relative.

“These young men were full of life, and it was cut off so abruptly (on Dec. 7),” Clendenning said in a phone interview. “Without the name it just seems like it’s not complete. The circle isn’t made. … I guess you could equate that to closure.”

To be in an “anonymous (grave) in a faraway place — I can imagine my grandmother was devastated by that,” he said.

Emory, 96, who manned a .50-caliber machine gun on the light cruiser USS Honolulu in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, is famous for his dec­ades-long research into the many “unknowns” at Punchbowl who gave their lives that day, and his desire to see them identified.

In 2015 the Pentagon announced that it was taking the unprecedented step of exhuming all the USS Oklahoma’s remaining 388 crew members buried as unknowns at Punchbowl.

The move came amid mounting pressure from Congress for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which searches for, recovers and identifies American missing war dead, to increase its identifications to at least 200 a year. In fiscal 2015, DPAA, which has a lab at Hickam, made 80 IDs.

Emory’s research led to one USS Oklahoma casket with commingled remains being unearthed in 2003. Using military records, he determined the identities of 27 men killed on the Oklahoma. The Pentagon positively identified five men. But incomplete sets of bones of more than 100 others also were found, complicating further identifications until all the remains were recovered.

All of the Oklahoma unknowns were disinterred by late 2015, and identifications continue to be made. As of Aug. 21, DPAA was at 141 IDs for all past conflicts this fiscal year.

Hickam’s unknowns

Emory, at least as far back as the 1990s, also researched Hickam’s 14 unknowns. Higa, who runs the historical tours program at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-­Hickam, started with Emory’s findings and continued the effort, eventually contacting 12 of the families.

All of the Army deceased from Dec. 7 were initially buried at Schofield Barracks, Higa said. They were disinterred beginning in 1947 and moved to warehouselike mausoleums at Schofield, and then moved to the new Punchbowl cemetery starting in 1949, she said.

Verna Clendenning wrote to the military in 1947, saying, “I want my boy, if it’s at all possible to locate him. Please give me information as to note how to go about it,” Higa said.

Although Lee’s brother, Charles, was there during the Dec. 7 attack, he soon went into a coma and was not aware where his brother was buried, she said.

“I believe that the Army, if they could not conclusively say they knew who was in that grave, just put them in the same category of (some) of those killed Dec. 7 as ‘body not recovered,’ or unrecoverable,” Higa said. “What they chose not to say is we buried people in temporary graves with the intent that when hostilities ceased we will try to identify them.”

Instead, the families were told in 1947, 1949 and 1952, “Don’t bother writing us anymore,” adding, “Your son has no grave. (There’s) no cemetery he’s listed in. He’s nonrecoverable,” Higa said.

Decades later Emory researched the burials at Schofield and the reburials at Punchbowl. Only Hickam Field had Army unidentified casualties at Schofield, Higa said.

“We did the rosters (of names). So we knew, based upon the research that the military did of who was not recovered,” how to determine the Hickam names and their reburial sites at Punchbowl, Higa said. “It all made sense.”

Emory said in years past he “could never get anybody in the Air Force interested” in positively identifying the 14 Hickam unknowns for reburial by family or to add gravestone information at Punchbowl.

In the meantime, DPAA, with Punchbowl’s assistance, has disinterred all of the Oklahoma unknowns, all 94 Tarawa unknowns and 19 of 35 USS West Virginia unknowns, officials said.

Emory worries that before DPAA gets to the Hickam bunch, somebody in the Defense Department might say “we’re discontinuing this (overall Punchbowl disinterment) project. That’s my worst fear.”

Finding closure

Lee Clendenning said he found out his uncle had an unmarked grave at Punchbowl only when Higa contacted him several years ago. He and his sister have since been out to Punchbowl to visit the cemetery and Hickam.

Clendenning said he’s in favor of disinterment so his uncle can be identified, but he believes he should stay buried at Punchbowl, which he calls one of the “most revered, peaceful places that I’ve ever seen.”

Clendenning submitted a DNA sample at DPAA’s request but said it’s not clear whether the organization plans on disinterment. There are also some discrepancies in the burial records, Higa said. The accounting agency said “the information concerning the Hickam unknowns is currently under review.”

Punchbowl Director Jim Horton said he sees the positive effects of the disinterments and identifications of unknowns.

People who aren’t involved with the families of the missing “can’t understand until you’ve been involved with them how much of an impact it really has, even though it’s two, three and sometimes four generations removed,” he said. “That feeling, that absence of closure with these families, is huge.”

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