The identifications will end there, however, if the laboratory is not permitted to recover the rest of the buried remains.
After a series of failures in the late 1940s, researchers realized they could not identify individual sailors with the technology they had, he said. The order was given to separate the remains according to parts — such as legs, arms and heads — and then bury them in 61 caskets in the Punchbowl.
“That's a very unusual thing to do, and I don't know of any other cases where they've done that from that era,” Byrd said.
Technology has drastically improved since the '40s, but the segregated bones make it impossible for Byrd's team to identify the other remains from the casket without the rest.
He said the Central Identification laboratory has applied to recover the 60 remaining caskets from the Punchbowl, and he's still waiting for an answer.
Navy spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Sarah Flaherty told The Oklahoman the Department of Defense initiated a working group to examine the challenges and issues associated with recovering the remains. It is unknown how long it will take to reach a decision, she said.
While the working group convenes, the Department of Navy is seeking support to conduct a memorial and burial ceremony for the remains currently held by the laboratory. If approved, the ceremony would be Dec. 7, 2014, at the USS Oklahoma Memorial on Ford Island.
“The consideration for us for having the ceremony is that people who are survivors of the USS Oklahoma are not getting any younger,” Flaherty said. “The memorial ceremony ... offers temporary closure and a cogent place for survivors to treat as a final resting place in the interim.”
She said the ceremony would not hinder identification efforts if the working group approves the project to retrieve the buried caskets. The Central Identification Laboratory has already collected the needed DNA from the remains in its possession.
“There's nothing else that can be pulled,” Flaherty said. “That doesn't mean that identities have been recovered, but the information has been pulled from those remains.”
Closure for comrades
If the request to disentomb the 400 remains is approved, the outcome would be significant, Byrd said.
“We don't want to be overly optimistic, and we don't want to build unrealistic expectations, so we hedge a little bit when we think we can identify at least three quarters of them,” he said. “Maybe more.”
Byrd estimates these results would take about five years to be reached.
After two decades of arguing with officials, Emory has accepted he may not live to see closure for his comrades. But he doesn't keep fighting for himself. He does it for the families of the unidentified servicemen whom he believes have been neglected by the government.
“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,” he said. “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?'”
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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?'