Hagel prodded on status of exhumed USS Oklahoma sailors

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


By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 14, 2014

FORT SHAFTER, Hawaii — A Connecticut senator prodded Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday for specifics on when and how the exhumed remains of sailors who died on the USS Oklahoma in 1941 would be returned to their families.

Sen. Chris Murphy and 14 other senators wrote the Pentagon eight months ago requesting that the remains of 22 sailors from the Oklahoma be returned to their families, who had asked for them.

The sailors were among more than 400 who died when the Oklahoma was torpedoed and capsized during the Dec. 7 surprise attack by Japan.

The ship was salvaged in 1943, and the remains of unidentifiable sailors were buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, known also as the Punchbowl.

In a letter to Hagel Thursday, Murphy asked for an update on “assurances” made in April by Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Lumpkin, who told the senators he had spoken with Hagel and “directed a review of the accounting of service members killed while serving on the Oklahoma.”

In March, Hagel ordered an overhaul of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which is tasked with finding and returning the remains of America’s MIAs, after a spate of media reports and an internal investigation described JPAC’s mismanagement and waste.

Over the past decade, JPAC came into possession of remains belonging to about 100 Oklahoma sailors but has been unable to identify them, according to a letter sent to families in May by Russell Beland, the deputy assistant secretary for military manpower and personnel.

In 2003 an independent researcher provided JPAC with information that could positively identify a body buried as unknown in the Punchbowl cemetery, according to Pentagon news releases.

JPAC exhumed a casket, and five sailors were identified and returned to their families, but the remains of possibly dozens more sailors were found in that same casket.

In 2009 the Department of Defense directed JPAC to prioritize retrieving remains overseas.

“The disinterment of one casket of the remains of unknowns from the Oklahoma has raised a number of complex issues that must be addressed before additional caskets will be disinterred,” stated the DOD policy memo.

“Therefore, it is DoD policy that in prioritizing efforts to recover and identify remains, and balance competing demands for resources for cases across all service components, the personnel account community’s first priority is to recover and identify the remains of Americans that still lie in the foreign countries in which they fell. 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.”

Beland said in his letter to the families that the Navy not only opposes exhuming more remains but prefers to reinter those already exhumed and now in JPAC’s possession.

Beland’s letter broached the possibility of a ceremonial burial of those remains in 2016, the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

That idea apparently has caused consternation among some of the families, according to Murphy’s letter.

“Furthermore, we have heard from confused and concerned constituents that the Navy is considering plans to bury these deceased service members in a mass grave on Ford Island,” Murphy wrote to Hagel. “The prospect of such a plan is troubling and disconcerting; why would the Navy go through the exercise of asking the families if they want their loved ones disinterred and identified only to bury them together on Ford Island?”

There is no cemetery on Ford Island, which is controlled by the Navy. The USS Arizona Memorial is just off shore of the island, which is in the center of Pearl Harbor.

A JPAC spokesperson said all questions about sailors’ remains from the USS Oklahoma were being fielded by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. That office did not immediately provide a response for Stars and Stripes.

Twitter: @WyattWOlson