Case finally closed for missing Indiana sailors killed in Pearl Harbor attack
(Tribune News Service) — Nearly 80 years later, the remains of two LaPorte, Ind., brothers killed in the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor have been identified. They will receive a second funeral and be reburied next month.
The two sailors, Electrician’s Mate William Trapp and Fire Controller Harold Trapp, were among 429 aboard the USS Oklahoma who died in the infamous Japanese attack that destroyed half of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet, propelling the United States into World War II.
The brothers’ names are recorded at the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu. A rosette will be placed next to their names to indicate they have been accounted for.
The Trapps will be buried on June 15 at the Punchbowl.
The attack and aftermath
The USS Oklahoma was moored at Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, when the ship was attacked by Japanese aircraft. The USS Oklahoma was struck by three aerial torpedoes at about 7:55 a.m. Dec. 7, 1941, during the first wave of the attack, according to official Navy accounts.
The ship began capsizing as the Japanese planes strafed the deck with machine gun fire. Six more torpedoes struck the Oklahoma, tearing the port side open. Within 15 minutes, the ship had rolled over, trapping crewmen inside.
Lt. j.g. Aloysius Schmitt, the ship’s chaplain, was conducting services when battle stations sounded. He could have made it to safety, but he was assisting junior sailors scrambling to safety when the ship rolled over. He became the U.S. military’s first chaplain killed in World War II.
Men trapped inside the ship began banging on the bulkhead to get the attention of passing boats. Rescuers cut holes in the Oklahoma’s exposed bottom on Dec. 8 and 9 to pull out 32 men still alive. The banging continued Dec. 10, but nothing further could be done. The water was coming from below the water line. Helpless sailors could only wait and listen until the banging stopped.
In total, 429 USS Oklahoma sailors died in the attack.
When the ship was righted in 1944, 429 sailors’ remains were recovered. Only 35 could be identified.
The remains of the 388 unidentified sailors and Marines were interred as “unknowns” in two cemeteries.
Identification of the remains
All the remains were disinterred in 1947 in an unsuccessful attempt to identify more of them.
In 1950, all these remains were buried in 61 caskets in 45 graves at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, when the Trapp brothers will be reburied.
In April 2015, the Defense Department announced the crew members’ remains would be exhumed for DNA analysis with the hopes of returning the identified remains to their families. Science had advanced enough to make identification more likely.
Scientists from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency identified the Trapps using dental and anthropological analysis. In addition, scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System use mitochondrial DNA, Y chromosome DNA and autosomal DNA analysis.
Because their dental records were different and they were different heights, scientists were able to tell the difference between the two of them.
Niece Carol Sowar, of Albuquerque, N.M., along with her children and her brother, used swabs to collect DNA samples to assist the scientists.
“I just can’t wrap my mind around it,” Sowar said.
The military gave her a book about 1½ inches thick about the process, she said.
Sorting through the remains wasn’t easy. The remains were commingled and had to be sorted out. About seven people had similar DNA, Sowar said, and were put together. For each bone the scientists examined, they had to weed out the ones that weren’t possibilities and fine-tune it further.
Sowar said the DPAA reached out to her in 2015, saying they were holding meetings for family members. She attended the one in Denver, the closest.
“It’s a very hard, difficult meeting,” she said, because everyone there had lost loved ones. “It’s gut-wrenching, the stories,” she said.
The attendees were separated into groups. She and other family members of the USS Oklahoma victims learned about the recovery process. They have been to additional meetings since.
“They treat these remains with so much respect, I cannot even tell you,” Sowar said. “I am so overwhelmed with what they did. It’s such a feeling of relief to be able to say goodbye to them and to do it with respect.”
Harold, the older Trapp brother, was born in 1916, the same year the Oklahoma was commissioned. William came along two years later, in 1918, the same year the Oklahoma escorted President Woodrow Wilson to France to negotiate the Versailles Treaty at the end of World War I.
Their sister, Irene, was born in 1919. They were raised on a farm on U.S. 35 north of LaPorte.
Harold was inquisitive, Sowar said. On the farm, he opened the flowers while trying to help. He took drafting courses to go to Purdue, but when the Great Depression hit, his chances of going to college vanished. Harold had a job as a draftsman in Michigan City and stayed there until he joined the Navy.
Harold played basketball and baseball in school, sang in the church choir and taught Sunday school at Trinity Lutheran Church in LaPorte, where a memorial service was held for William and Harold on March 1, 1942.
William liked doing manual labor. In the winter, he ran a trap line and caught muskrats, selling their furs for coats. He was good at carpentry, using a coping saw to make his own jigsaw puzzles. He enjoyed building things with wood as well. William was quite a hand with artillery shells, too, Sowar said. He built ashtrays and a lamp from spent shells.
Life on the farm
Together, the boys built a grass house. They made several passes with wire, upon which they hung wild wheat. It wasn’t very successful.
They also enjoyed making a fire to roast potatoes and apples in a pit. Sowar, who wasn’t born until after her uncles died, read her mother’s account of it. “We thought we were pretty good cooks, and mom and dad never complained.”
They once found a hole with water in it and tried to create a pond. They didn’t get enough water, though.
“Vacation was not all fun,” Sowar said. The children collected fruits and apples from the farm’s orchard. Their father, who worked at Allis-Chalmers as well as on the farm, sold raspberries for 2 or 3 cents a quart.
Any money they earned went to their mother to help keep the family afloat.
When they served as caddies on the golf course a few miles away, they would come home to tell their mother, “Hold your apron open” so they could give her their earnings.
Their favorite treat was a black cow, homemade ice cream with root beer.
On the Fourth of July, Uncle Frank showed up in coat and tails like Uncle Sam. It was a big party, complete with firecrackers and sparklers.
Harold, William and Irene were close. “They were very protective of my mother,” Sowar said. They hung out with the same circle of friends.
The Trapp brothers enlisted the Navy on the same day — May 4, 1939. Harold didn’t want to enlist but William was insistent, so Harold joined, too.
Harold was to have been sent back to the mainland for additional training just seven days after the attack occurred.
They were among six sets of brothers, including one set of twins, on the USS Oklahoma.
The Trapps are among the lucky ones. As of April 23, 327 identifications of the original 388 unidentified sailors and Marines had been made, including six identified prior to April 2015.
The military is still trying to track down family members of 22 others who died aboard the USS Oklahoma.
The Trapp brothers’ remains are at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Neb. They will be flown to Honolulu, their uniforms and skeletal remains fastened inside the caskets so they don’t rattle around, Sowar said. An honor guard will be present, with a small ceremony when they come off the plane.
“We won’t know until two days ahead,” she said.
Sowar said the brothers will have a single committal ceremony at the Punchbowl on June 15, with a limited number of people allowed. Sowar, her husband and her three children — one of whom lives in Hawaii — are planning to attend.
“It’s during COVID time, so it’s going to be very simple,” she said.
A Navy chaplain will perform the nondenominational service. Sowar said an admiral plans to be there.
Sowar spent Mother’s Day looking through pictures of her mother and uncles when they were little. “We just have so much history of them. You feel close to them,” she said.
“We have this history, this visual history of their lives,” Sowar said.
She shared photos of the two sailors with the military.
“I think the hardest part for me of all of this is just that when they passed away, that was the end of the family on that side,” Sowar said.
The Trapp brothers’ mother, Lillie, “died of a broken heart” a few years after her sons died, when Sowar was 2 years old. Their father died a few years after that.
“There is a real high price for war,” Sowar said.
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