Pentagon agrees to review burial of 22 unknown WWII sailors

The Pentagon has agreed to conduct a review of the accounting for the bodies of 22 unknown men who died on the USS Oklahoma battleship during the World War II attack on Pearl Harbor.

A group of 15 senators urged the Pentagon last month to exhume caskets containing the remains so that they could be identified and brought home for burial in their community or buried in a marked grave in Hawaii.

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“I’m glad the Pentagon has agreed to begin this process — it’s a big step toward bringing some comfort and closure to the family members of these sailors,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, (D-Conn.), who led the effort with Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).

The 22 men, along with 408 other sailors, were killed when their ship was torpedoed during the attack in 1941.

In 1943, Oklahoma was salvaged, but the remains of the sailors were classified as “unknown” and buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, according to a statement by Murphy's office.

“For nearly 70 years, these families never knew the final resting place of their loved ones,” Murphy said in the statement. “The brave men who died protecting our great nation at Pearl Harbor deserve a final resting place of their families’ choosing.” 

The efforts to identify the USS Oklahoma sailors came after Pearl Harbor Survivors Association historian Ray Emory ascertained in 2003 the identities of 27 men killed on the Oklahoma that were previously listed as “unknown.”

Emory’s research was shared with the Pentagon, and scientists exhumed a coffin from a grave at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

Between 2003 and 2008, Emory, the scientists and family members of the five men buried in that grave were correctly identified, and their respective remains returned to their families. 

Emory then sought, with the help of a man named Bob Valley from the USS Oklahoma Family, Inc., to track down relatives for the remaining 22 men, whose remains are believed to be spread in five caskets among three graves. 

New technology in recent years has made it possible to identify remains using DNA from remains, by matching it with that of relatives.

The Pentagon agreed to the review of the accounting in an April 9 letter from Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Lumpkin, but did not say whether the remains would be exhumed.

“Accounting for these unknown personnel is important to the Department, and I understand the families’ interests in finding out the fate of their missing loved ones. I greatly appreciate your strong support for our service members and their families,” Lumpkin said in the letter, which was released for the public earlier this week.

The review will be a part of the Pentagon’s larger effort to restructure the way it accounts for missing service members, after being criticized for slow and costly recoveries.  

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