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Remains of Louisiana sailor killed in Pearl Harbor attack identified through DNA analysis

By DAVID J MITCHELL | The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. | Published: November 21, 2018

BATON ROUGE, La. (Tribune News Service) — Just 10 minutes into the attack on Pearl Harbor nearly 77 years ago, Japanese planes had fired eight torpedoes into the USS Oklahoma, causing the great battleship that had escorted convoys in World War I and guarded President Woodrow Wilson's ship on a voyage to Europe to capsize.

A ninth torpedo hit the ship as it settled, upside down, into the mud of Pearl Harbor off Ford Island, consigning 429 sailors and marines to their deaths. Many were trapped in the capsized hull, and most have remained buried in anonymity since Dec. 7, 1941.

But a Louisiana sailor killed on the Oklahoma on that tragic day that launched the U.S. into the Second World War recently had his remains exhumed and identified through a U.S. Defense Department program using DNA technological advancements, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency says.

Charles Houston Harris, 22, the U.S. Navy electrician's mate 3rd class assigned to the Oklahoma, grew up outside Jena in the small community of Good Pine with his eight brothers and sisters in the 1920s and 1930s, census records show.

His remains were identified on April 30 through mitochondrial DNA analysis, dental and anthropological research, and circumstantial evidence, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency added. Mitochondrial DNA is passed on through the maternal line.

Jerry Wrider, 79, of San Antonio, Texas, who is Harris' nephew, said Tuesday that he and another relative submitted DNA a few years ago to help identify his long-dead uncle's remains after family members were contacted.

What kind of person Charles Harris was, what his hopes, dreams and fears were and what motivated him to join the Navy are unclear and may be lost to time and the deaths of many of his contemporaries and immediate family. If Harris had lived today, he would be 98.

Wrider, who grew up mostly in Kansas but spent a few years in his youth in Jena, said he was a very young boy when his uncle was killed and doesn't remember much about him.

Wrider said his mother, Ethel Drake, one of Charles Harris' older sisters who died in 2002 at age 95, never spoke of her younger brother.

"Like I say, I was only about 3 years old when this happened, so over the years there was really no talk about him," Wrider said.

But Wrider said the process of learning about his uncle and submitting DNA to help identify his remains has shed some light on a lost part of Wrider's family past.

For 69 years, Harris' remains had been among several hundred crewmen whose remains had been declared as "non-recoverable" by the Defense Department.

Only 35 of the dead Oklahoma crewmen were able to be identified immediately after the attack, which killed 2,402 in all and debilitated the U.S. Pacific Fleet for a time.

In 1947, after the Navy had spent nearly three years salvaging the Oklahoma, including pulling human remains from it and burying them, the American Graves Registration Service disinterred those remains but was unable to identify any new crewmen.

The unidentified remains were reburied in 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, which is known as the "Punchbowl," in Honolulu, Hawaii, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency says.

Charles Harris' name also appears on the Courts of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial.

In 2015, following a Defense Department memorandum to disinter Oklahoma remains a second time, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency personnel tried again to identify those remains in light of DNA and other technological advancements and then to return those remains to family members if they wished.

Early estimates a few years ago suggested 80 percent of the remains could be identified within a five-year period. By 2015, the Department of Defense had 84 percent of the needed samples for DNA analysis on Oklahoma remains, as well as medical and dental records from the Oklahoma crewmen, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency says.

The federal agency says it gives the family members of crewmen whose remains are identified the option to have them reinterred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific or at another veterans or private cemetery.

Wrider said he initially thought he would want Harris' remains to be returned but believes now the family will keep him buried in Hawaii.

"It's nice we'll know where's he's going to be buried and that they really found him."

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