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DoD Seeks to Identify Unaccounted-for USS Oklahoma Crew Members

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WASHINGTON, April 14, 2015 — The remains of up to 388 unaccounted-for sailors and Marines associated with the USS Oklahoma will be exhumed later this year for analysis that could lead to identifying most of them, Defense Department officials announced today.

On Dec. 7, 1941, 429 sailors and Marines were killed when Japanese torpedoes sank the ship during the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

Upon disinterment, the remains will be transferred to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency laboratory in Hawaii for examination, officials said in a news release, noting that analysis of all available evidence indicates that most USS Oklahoma crew members can be identified upon disinterment.

Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work approved the disinterment and established a broader DoD policy that defines threshold criteria for disinterment of unknowns.

“The secretary of defense and I will work tirelessly to ensure your loved one’s remains will be recovered, identified, and returned to you as expeditiously as possible, and we will do so with dignity, respect and care,” Work said. “While not all families will receive an individual identification, we will strive to provide resolution to as many families as possible.”

The disinterment policy applies to all unidentified remains from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific and other permanent American military cemeteries. However, this policy does not extend to sailors and Marines lost at sea or to remains entombed in U.S. Navy vessels serving as national memorials, officials said.

Threshold Criteria

The threshold criteria include research, family reference samples for DNA comparison, medical and dental records of the missing service members, and the scientific capacity to identify the remains in a timely manner, officials said. To disinter cases of commingled remains, they added, the department must estimate the ability to identify at least 60 percent of the individuals associated with a group. A likelihood of at least 50 percent identification must be attained for individual unknowns.

"The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency is prepared to begin this solemn undertaking in concert with ongoing worldwide recovery missions,” Navy Rear Adm. Mike Franken, DPAA’s acting director, said. “Personally, I am most privileged to be part of this honorable mission, and I very much appreciate the efforts of many people who saw this revised disinterment policy come to fruition."

Salvage Operations

In the years immediately following the attacks, 35 crew members were positively identified and buried.

During salvage operations from June 1942 to May 1944, the remaining service members’ remains were removed from the ship and initially interred as unknowns in Hawaii’s Nuuanu and Halawa cemeteries. In 1947, all remains in those cemeteries were disinterred for attempted identification. Twenty-seven unknowns from the USS Oklahoma were proposed for identification based on dental comparisons, but all proposed identifications were disapproved.

By 1950, all unidentified remains associated with the ship were re-interred as unknowns at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, commonly known as the Punchbowl.

In 2003, the DoD laboratory in Hawaii disinterred one casket containing USS Oklahoma remains based on historical evidence provided by Ray Emory, a Pearl Harbor survivor. The evidence helped to establish the identification of five servicemen; however, the casket contained the remains of up to 100 men who have not yet been identified.

Analysis of remains will begin immediately after their arrival into the DPAA laboratory and will use current forensic tools and techniques, including DNA testing, Pentagon officials said. Service members who are identified will be returned to their families for burial with full military honors.

Navy and Marine Corps casualty offices began notifying the next-of-kin this morning, officials said.