Forensic anthropologist says he can identify unknown dead on USS Oklahoma

BY KYLE HINCHEY khinchey@opubco.com Modified: August 4, 2013 at 10:00 pm •  Published: August 3, 2013
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A forensic anthropologist is confident his research lab can identify hundreds of USS Oklahoma servicemen buried as unknowns in Hawaii. He just needs permission from the Department of Defense to do so.

John Byrd, director of the Central Identification Laboratory, became involved with the USS Oklahoma project in 2003 when Pearl Harbor survivor Ray Emory showed the lab critical information about the nearly 400 remains.

More than 600 U.S. servicemen killed during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor are buried as unknowns in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Roughly two-thirds of these belong to the USS Oklahoma. The commingled, unidentified remains may not be as unknown as they appear, Emory claimed.

A thorough investigation of his research led to a harrowing conclusion: He's right.

Unknown graves

Emory, now 92, first visited the cemetery in Honolulu more than 20 years ago to honor those killed at Pearl Harbor. Dubbed the Punchbowl for resembling the serving dish, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific is tucked away within a volcanic crater. The burial ground is home to 34,000 military veterans.

Emory expected to find an organized area dedicated to the hundreds of servicemen who lost their lives in the battle.

Instead he found nothing.

After failing to locate them himself, Emory, who was stationed on the USS Honolulu in 1941, asked the caretaker where he could find the Pearl Harbor graves. The answer horrified him. They were spread all over the area, the caretaker told him.

The graves were listed only as “unknown,” making it impossible for visitors to distinguish which grave held remains from which ship or from which war.

Emory scoured through Army and Navy records, finding whatever information he could about the burials.

The results were startling.

In 1950, 61 caskets carrying the remains of about 400 unknowns from the USS Oklahoma were buried in the Punchbowl.

He dug further and discovered a deceased personnel file listing the names of 27 servicemen from the ship whose remains were believed to be identified in 1949. An anthropologist didn't approve the identifications, however, and the remains were buried with the rest.

For more than a decade, Emory tried convincing officials to exhume these remains so they could be re-identified and returned to their families. He won a small victory after officials finally relented and added the ship names to the grave markers.

In 2003, he caught a bigger break.

Identification difficult

The Central Identification Laboratory is run by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, a Department of Defense task force charged with accounting for all Americans listed as prisoners of war and missing in action. Byrd and other representatives sat down with Emory and found his information credible.

The scientists decided to unbury a casket believed to be holding the remains of five of the 27 servicemen. They found what they were looking for, but not what they expected.

“What we thought we were going to find were discrete sets of remains packaged in the normal nurturing manner,” Byrd said. “Instead, what we found was that all of the remains of the sailors were commingled.”

Along with the scrambled remains of the five sailors, the team found bones belonging to about 100 servicemen.

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I'm 92, so I'll be dead before they get a lot of this done, but I just keep going along and doing my own thing. And maybe someday something will happen, something will get done. But there's nothing I can do except maybe scream at some congressman or senator and say, ‘Hey. What do you intend for these people to do?'

Raymond Emory,

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