In reversal, DOD to exhume USS Oklahoma unknowns

Punchbowl cemetery, at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, pictured December of 2005.


By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 14, 2015

The remains of an estimated 388 sailors and Marines, buried in a Honolulu cemetery as unknowns,will be exhumed and identified by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s lab in Hawaii, officials said Tuesday.

The servicemembers died on the USS Oklahoma during the Japanese surprise attack on Oahu on Dec. 7, 1941, but the commingled remains were unidentifiable at the time and buried in numerous caskets at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as the Punchbowl cemetery.

The disinterment process is expected to begin in three to six weeks, said DPAA spokeswoman Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan. The DOD has required that the identifications be made within five years of exhumation.

The move to exhume the Oklahoma remains is somewhat of an about-face for the Defense Department, which last year sent a letter to family members saying that the Navy opposed disinterment.

The task is the first major undertaking by the newly formed DPAA. Last year, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the merger of several MIA accounting agencies into a new single entity after an inspector general’s report described mismanagement and waste.

Also on Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work announced a “broader” DOD disinterment policy that will apply to all unidentified human remains from the Punchbowl cemetery and other U.S. military cemeteries.

The new policy calls for the following thresholds to be met before proceeding with disinterment:

  • In cases where remains are commingled, research must indicate that at least 60 percent of the servicemembers associated with the group can be individually identified.
  • For individual unknowns, at least a 50 percent likelihood of making an identification must be determined before disinterment.

The new policy calls for the DOD to meet those thresholds by conducting the necessary research to determine the list of possible missing servicemembers who could be among the unknowns, collecting family DNA for comparison to the remains, obtaining servicemembers’ medical and dental records, and possessing and using “the scientific and technological ability and capacity to identify the personnel in a timely manner.”

The DPAA will coordinate the Oklahoma disinterments with the Department of Veterans Affairs, which administers the Punchbowl, where 2,760 unknown servicemembers are buried. Of that number, 1,988 unknowns are from World War II and 772 are from the Korean War.

Just more than 1,000 of the World War II unknowns are associated with ship losses and were buried commingled in groups of caskets, Work said in the policy memo.

The 388 USS Oklahoma unknowns are buried in 61 caskets at 45 grave sites, Work said.

Several attempts have been made to identify at least some of the Oklahoma unknowns in the Punchbowl, during which 35 of them were identified, according to a DOD statement released Tuesday.

The remains were originally buried in Nuuanu and Halawa cemeteries in Hawaii but were disinterred in 1947 for attempted identification. Twenty-seven remains were proposed for identification based on dental records but ultimately remained unidentified.

By 1950, all Oklahoma unknowns were re-interred at the Punchbowl cemetery.

Based on historical evidence provided by Ray Emory, a Pearl Harbor survivor, in 2003, the DOD laboratory in Hawaii disinterred one casket containing Oklahoma remains, which helped establish the identification of five servicemembers, the DOD statement said.

That casket held the remains of possibly up to 100 other men, none who have been identified at this point.

During the past 12 years, the DOD has contacted family members, collecting and analyzing DNA from 84 percent of applicable USS Oklahoma family members, Work said in the policy memo. The DOD has collected 90 percent of medical and dental records from the ship’s crew.

“Analysis of all available evidence indicates that most Oklahoma crewmembers could be identified individually if the caskets associated with the ship were disinterred,” Work said.

“I make this decision knowing that not all families will receive an individual identification as a result of these efforts,” Work said. “But I accept as a matter of principle that DOD must strive to provide resolution through individual identification to as many families as possible and to the reasonable limits of our scientific abilities.”

Twitter: @WyattWOlson

The USS Oklahoma, sunk during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, is seen righted to about 30 degrees during salvage operations March 29, 1943. Naval Air Station Ford Island is in the background.