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HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — The Defense POW /MIA Accounting Agency said it has talked with the Navy about disinterring 94 sailors from the famed battleship USS Arizona who are buried as "unknowns" at Punchbowl cemetery in Honolulu.

But not for identification and potential return to families, as is the usual case, and has been done with hundreds of other unknowns at Punchbowl — officially named the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

The accounting agency disinterred 388 from the USS Oklahoma in 2015. It has exhumed casualties from the USS West Virginia and USS California and the 1943 Battle of Tarawa and hundreds from the Korean War for identification.

It's now planning to disinter from Punchbowl about 400 buried as unknowns who died as prisoners of war on Japanese transport ships including the Enoura Maru, with conditions so bad they were dubbed "hellships."

But with the group of USS Arizona unknowns — and for reasons that are not entirely clear — the accounting agency is considering taking the unprecedented step of placing their remains back in the sunken Pearl Harbor battleship that accounted for the greatest loss of life on Dec. 7, 1941.

A total of 1,177 men were killed on the warship, which still is a grave for many and a national memorial to the losses suffered at what became America's entry into World War II.

"We have had preliminary discussions with the Navy, and one of the proposals that we have notionally talked about is to disinter all of them — not for the purpose of identification — but to entomb them in the hull of the Arizona along with their shipmates, " Kelly McKeague, director of the accounting agency, said at an online Feb. 20 "family member update " for those with loved ones unaccounted for from past wars.

McKeague was responding to a question as to when the USS Arizona unknowns would "finally " get disinterred.

"It's something that, again, we could never take on the process of disinterring the 94 from the national cemetery, only because it would cause us to have to get (DNA) family reference samples " from the more than 900 men who remain in the battleship grave to compare against the 94, he said.

"So it's not a proposition that makes pragmatic sense, but more importantly, it's not one that the United States Navy is open to — only because the Arizona, the memorial itself, is their final resting place," said McKeague, a Hawaii native and 1977 Damien Memorial School graduate. "So our notional plan, again, was to disinter the 94 (and) entomb them all together ... to achieve the fullest possible accounting of the entire USS Arizona crew."

The proposal does not sit well with two of the better-known families of what is one of the most tragic and revered Navy ships of World War II.

"I thought, 'God, this is just wrong. This is just absolutely beyond wrong, '" said Randy Stratton, son of Arizona crew member Don Stratton, who, despite burns over 65 % of his body on Dec. 7, was one of six men to climb hand over hand on a rope thrown from the adjacent repair ship USS Vestal in one of the most dramatic rescues of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Don Stratton died on Feb. 15, 2020, at the age of 97, leaving just two living members of a crew that once numbered 1,514.

"If they are doing DNA samples (from other unknowns buried at Punchbowl), why couldn't they do DNA samples of those unknown (USS Arizona) tombs and be able to notify the family" for possible burial back home in a family graveyard, Randy Stratton asked.

If a family wants to re-inter an identified Arizona crew member from the group of 94 back on the ship, that's fine, too, said Stratton, who lives in Colorado.

"The family members should have that option of whether or not that's where he would belong, or he would rather belong beside his wife, his son, daughter — whoever may have passed before him — and not just clump them into one big 94-people (group). That just doesn't make any sense to me at all."

DPAA, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C., but has a big identification lab and offices at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, literally goes to the ends of the Earth bushwhacking through jungles and climbing mountains to recover the fallen from past wars, identify their remains and return them home.

"If you are killed in action and we can't just get you out right then and there, we're going to come looking for you and get you home, " Navy Adm. Jon Kreitz, DPAA's former deputy director, said in a 2019 accounting agency release.

Identification of World War II unknowns at Punchbowl — many of whom are commingled in big caskets due to the circumstances of their death — has been made possible in recent decades by advances in science, particularly DNA.

Lou Conter, a California resident and one of just two remaining survivors of the Arizona — and who will turn 100 in September — also said that identifications should be made for his shipmates removed from Punchbowl, and that the families of those men should be given the choice to re-inter them on the battleship or in a family plot.

"Let the family decide, but definitely, if they are going to bring them up, identify them, " said his daughter, Louann Daley. "Give them that respect of identification. I think they should show them the respect like they did with the Oklahoma of identifying them."

There was no discussion by McKeague, DPAA's director, as to how the remains of 94 USS Arizona crew members would be re-interred aboard the battleship. Lauren Bruner, an Arizona crew member who died in 2019 at the age of 98, was the 44th survivor to have his ashes interred by divers in gun turret 4 of his former ship.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser asked the accounting agency if the Arizona disinterment plan is going forward. In an email, it chose to refer to Memorandum DTM-16-003 "policy guidance for the disinterment of unidentified human remains, " and did not answer the question.

The accounting agency didn't provide any answer at all as to why getting DNA family reference samples to make identifications for the Arizona unknowns apparently is out of the question.

It could take over $5 million, thousands of DNA tests and several years to undertake the USS Arizona identifications. According to a Pentagon budget document, the accounting agency had a $155 million operations and maintenance budget in fiscal 2019, but a projected drop in fiscal 2021 with a $129 million estimate.

The Navy's reported preference for re-interring the unidentified USS Arizona dead back on the battleship has precedence in a plan involving the USS Oklahoma, which was heavily damaged in the Pearl Harbor attack.

In 2013, the predecessor organization to DPAA wanted to exhume all the Oklahoma casualties buried as unknowns at Punchbowl but got pushback from the Navy, which preferred to maintain the "sanctity" of the graves.

Further, the Navy suggested taking the partial and commingled remains of more than 100 Oklahoma crew members that had already been disinterred in 2003 from a single casket at Punchbowl and reburying them unidentified at a memorial and gravesite on Ford Island.

Congressional pressure on the accounting agency to make at least 200 identifications a year to address a significant backlog from World War II in part led to the current pace of disinterments at Punchbowl, including the exhumation of all Oklahoma crew.

Navy reluctance to identify unknowns from Punchbowl stems from tradition, namely, "you go down with the ship, you stay with the ship," said Lisa Phillips, past president of WWII Families for the Return of the Missing.

"That is their stance on it," Phillips said. "Then you've got the family stance of, 'I want to know where my relative is.' They want to have identification so they can have closure."

(c)2021 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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