Seventy-five years ago, the ship rolled over in its berth at Ford Island after being hit by multiple torpedoes during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Fully two-thirds of the 2,400 American casualties are what the Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency describes as “unresolved.” The bodies of most of those killed were never recovered, or they were recovered but not identified. The unidentified remains were buried in Hawaiian cemeteries in graves marked “unknown.”
In many cases, the remains were jumbled. Bones from dozens of men were mixed up and placed in a single casket.
That includes a large majority of the 429 who died aboard the Oklahoma. Only 35 were identified in the immediate aftermath of the attack. After the war, the rest of the remains – most of which were recovered during a 1943 salvage operation aboard the battleship – were placed in 63 caskets and buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, also known as the Punchbowl.
Nebraska’s Offutt Base is now ground zero in a recent effort by the accounting agency to return those remains to their families. In 2013, the accounting agency opened a lab at Offutt to supplement the laboratory space at its Hawaii headquarters. The Offutt lab is where the USS Oklahoma remains are now being examined and identified.
“It’s a very large puzzle with a lot of moving pieces,” said Dr. Carrie Brown, the forensic anthropologist who heads the Oklahoma identification team.
As of this month, the agency has identified 64 of the Oklahoma unknowns, said Dr. Franklin Damann, director of the Offutt lab. Thirty-eight names have been publicly announced, and 27 have been reburied – most in their hometowns, or near family members.
At least 18 crewmen from Nebraska and western Iowa remain missing from the Oklahoma. None of them has yet been identified.
Six sets of brothers died on the Oklahoma, including one set of identical twins: Leo and Rudolph Blitz of Lincoln.
The brothers were the ninth and tenth of 12 children born to Henry and Marie Blitz, Russian immigrants to the United States in the early 1900s.
Betty Pitsch of Seward, No. 11, was born 4½ years later. She was 16 when her brothers died. The family was notified on Christmas, relatives say. The mark on the family never faded.
“It was many, many years, no one would ever talk about this,” said Pitsch, now 91. “But they were always remembered.”
The family put a memorial marker for the twins in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery. When they are identified, she intends for them to be buried there.
The USS Oklahoma remains have a long and macabre history. Some bodies were recovered from the ship and the waters around it in the weeks after the attack. Others remained entombed in the hull until the battleship was salvaged in 1942 and ’43. The bones of the dead, encrusted in mud and oil, were removed from the ship and buried in two Hawaiian cemeteries.
In 1947, the Graves Registration Service undertook a two-year effort to identify the remains. Though it matched names to 27 skulls using dental records, authorities decided to rebury all of the remains because no complete bodies could be identified.
All of the Pearl Harbor unknowns might have remained anonymous if not for the work of Ray Emory, 95, a survivor of the 1941 attack.
After the war, he worked as an engineer in Washington state. In the mid-1980s, he retired to Hawaii. Once he stopped at the cemetery to honor the graves of comrades who had died in the Pearl Harbor attack.
“I wanted to know where the Pearl Harbor grave sites were,” Emory told The World-Herald in 2013. “They couldn’t tell me.”
Stunned, he walked through the cemetery rows and found dozens of graves marked “Unknown, Dec. 7, 1941.” Using the Freedom of Information Act, he began a years-long process of assembling files on the Pearl Harbor dead. That led to the opening of two coffins in the mid-2000s and the identification of six Oklahoma crew members.
The USS Oklahoma survivors’ association joined forces with Emory to lobby for the opening of the remaining 61 caskets containing “unknowns” from the ship. Early last year, Deputy Robert Work ordered the newly reorganized accounting agency to do it.
In the summer and fall of 2015, the caskets were removed in solemn ceremonies, covered with flags, and escorted by pallbearers for transfer to the accounting agency’s Hawaii lab.
There the skulls were separated from what anthropologists call the “post-cranial remains” – essentially, the rest of the body. The skulls were kept in Hawaii for examination by the agency’s forensic odontologists, who are based there. The rest of the remains were returned to caskets and flown to Offutt.
In the months since, Brown’s team of anthropologists has examined nearly 13,000 bones recovered from the caskets and collected biological data that offers clues on age, height, sex and ancestry.
“We can use certain information from each element,” Brown said. “We’re able to filter and sort, use the data.”
The anthropologists created a database that helps them to group sets of bones with similar characteristics. DNA samples from almost 5,000 of the bones have been sent to the testing laboratory in Dover, Delaware, to be matched up against samples gathered from family members of the missing crew members. Descendants of 84 percent of the missing men were found and agreed to submit DNA.
The results of those tests have begun to come back and already are aiding in the identifications based on DNA as well as dental and biological characteristics. The entire project is expected to take five years.
It’s not clear just how many different people’s remains are in the lab. Brown said a total of 361 full or partial skulls have been recovered from the caskets. There are also 300 pairs of upper-arm bones and 298 separate mitochondrial DNA sequences.
The accounting agency has been criticized for not simply extracting DNA from every bone and measuring it against the samples taken from family.
But, Brown said, that’s not as simple as it seems in TV police dramas. For one thing, such old bones don’t always yield good-quality DNA samples. A DNA match isn’t available from every family. Because DNA testing is expensive and time-consuming, it’s quicker and faster if they can narrow down the pool of possible matches using biology.
“To just take samples from everything – that seems easy, but it’s actually a very poor strategy,” Brown said.
She said experienced anthropologists actually are pretty good at matching certain bones based on visual cues. And the database her Oklahoma team has created lets the computer quickly match similar bones together.
“The Oklahoma came in (and) we established a plan,” Brown said. “We have a system down.”
To date, all the identifications have been made from the skulls that were analyzed first in Hawaii.
A few weeks ago, the Hawaii lab finished its work with the remaining skulls. They were placed in five flag-draped coffins and flown to Offutt aboard an C-17. Lab employees stood at attention as pallbearers carried them from the aircraft into a waiting truck for transfer to the lab, in the World War II-era Martin Bomber Plant building at Offutt.
The work requires the anthropologists to maintain a clinical detachment as they examine the bones. But they are reminded that these are real people whose lives were cut short.
“What we’re doing on a daily basis has so much significance to so many individuals,” said Brown, whose job includes briefing relatives. “Meeting the families – that really hits home, why you do this.”