WWII mystery: Are 'missing' sailors actually in New York cemetery?
By CLEVE R. WOOTSON JR. | The Washington Post | Published: November 20, 2016
Explosion after explosion rocked the USS Turner - detonations so powerful that they broke windows in the buildings near New York's harbor, more than a mile away.
A final and particularly violent explosion ripped the Gleaves-class destroyer in two. By 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 3, 1944 - less than two hours after the initial, internal explosion - the Turner was submerged in the Atlantic Ocean.
Other ships scrambled to pluck more than 150 survivors from frigid waters. But 136 sailors died that day, many trapped behind watertight doors while manning their battle stations, according to the Associated Press.
Officially, the bodies of the sailors killed on the USS Turner were never recovered. The Pentagon still considers them missing.
But a World War II historian says the remains of some of the missing sailors may have been buried in nearby Long Island veterans cemetery - although the military men are not identified, and their families were never informed of what might be their final resting place.
The revelation was made by Ted Darcy, a Marine veteran who believes the government should do more to honor the war dead of the USS Turner.
"There should have been a group burial," Darcy told The Washington Post. "If there were just body parts, combine them into one grave and put all the names of the dead there; build a monument."
The U.S. government, he said, has "always had that obligation. They just haven't done it."
Darcy, the founder of Massachusetts-based WFI Research Group, said he got details about the burial site after a four-year fight with the National Cemetery Administration, a division of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"During the course of  there were four separate burials made at Long Island National Cemetery," Darcy wrote to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in a letter he shared with The Post. "These were the remains recovered during the salvage operations."
Darcy's letter says investigating his claims and erecting a proper burial monument will result in "removing 136 more names from the Navy MIA listing."
For now, the plain white tombstones Darcy discovered just have "Unknown U.S. Sailor" written on them, along with the date of the USS Turner explosion: "January 3, 1944."
Staff Sgt. Kristen Duus, a spokeswoman for the accounting agency, said it's possible that more than one USS Turner sailor's remains are buried at the cemetery.
But she said her agency hasn't found records for those graves, making them "difficult cases to pursue." And the agency wouldn't exhume a grave based solely on Darcy's findings, she said.
"It takes years of research to determine if we have valid reason to disinter a site," she told The Post, adding that she didn't know if an investigation based on Darcy's claims had begun.
Darcy, who founded his research group in 1991, said commingling remains was not uncommon in the fog of war. The four gravesites could hold the bodies of many, many more sailors, he said.
Families who lost loved ones in the USS Turner disaster told the AP that they were never informed about recovered bodies or burials in a New York cemetery - only that their relatives who died that day in 1944 were missing.
"Oh, my goodness; I would've liked to have known that," 82-year-old Marjorie Avery, of Corsicana, Texas, told the AP.
Her father, Henry S. Wygant Jr., was the Turner's captain and is still officially listed as missing.
Two of the last USS Turner survivors still living - James Thomas, of Leivasy, West Virginia, and Robert Mowry, of Irwin, Pennsylvania - told the AP they also hadn't been notified about a potential final resting place for the sailors who died the day explosions destroyed their ship.
"It's just one of those things that happen in a war," said Mowry, 91. "It was just us at the wrong place at the wrong time, that's all."
The location of more than 100 seamen isn't the only mystery. The Navy report doesn't say what sparked the initial explosion, although crew members were defusing munitions about that time, Darcy said.
The munitions, which protected the ship from enemy submarines, couldn't be brought into the harbor because an explosion could cause a chain reaction and destroy several ships.
After the USS Turner went down, the Navy launched a year-long salvage operation to remove most of the hulking wreckage - a 1,700-ton navigation hazard in a relatively shallow 56 feet of water. As World War II raged on, chunks of the Turner were raised from the bottom of the Atlantic, because they could damage other ships.
The salvagers had to have come across the remains of the dead sailors, Darcy said. But they made no notes about what happened to the remains.
According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, "there were approximately 79,000 Americans unaccounted for" at the end of World War II - a number that "included those buried with honor as unknowns, officially buried at sea, lost at sea, and missing in action."
Today, some 73,119 U.S. service members who died during the war remain unaccounted for, the agency says. More than 31,000 of the "Service Personnel Not Recovered" from World War II served in the Navy.