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DOD Identifies Most Remains of Those Killed on USS Oklahoma

Sept. 17, 2021 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has identified most of those killed on the USS Oklahoma when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941.

Service members carry flag-draped caskets on a flightline by an open aircraft.
USS Oklahoma Honors
U.S. service members participate in an honorable carry ceremony at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, June 24, 2021. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency hosted ceremonies to return remains and pay tribute to the 429 sailors and Marines lost aboard the USS Oklahoma during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. The remains were returned from the DPAA laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., as the USS Oklahoma Project nears completion. In 2003, there were 394 Sailors and Marines unaccounted for from the USS Oklahoma; as of June 2021, more than 338 of those had been identified.
Photo By: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Rusty Frank
VIRIN: 210624-F-YU668-0053R


Between June and November 2015, personnel from DPAA exhumed the unidentified crew members from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific for anthropological analysis. Of the 429 killed, 394 had been buried as unknown persons. As of Sept. 15, 2021, 346 had been identified.

The Nevada-class battleship USS Oklahoma was commissioned in 1916 and was the pride of the American fleet. The ship was notable for being the first American class of oil-burning dreadnaughts.

The vessel saw duty in World War I, protecting Allied convoys to Europe.

As fate would have it, the Oklahoma was moored at Ford Island Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked.

During the attack, several torpedoes from Japanese airplanes hit the Oklahoma's hull, and the ship capsized. A total of 429 crew members died.

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Survivors jumped off the ship into burning, oil-coated water or crawled across mooring lines that connected the Oklahoma and the battleship USS Maryland. 

Some of the sailors and Marines inside escaped when rescuers drilled holes and opened hatches to rescue them. 

From December 1941 to June 1944, Navy personnel recovered the remains of the crew; they were interred in the Halawa and Nu'uanu cemeteries in Hawaii.

In September 1947, tasked with recovering and identifying fallen U.S. personnel in the Pacific Theater, members of the Army's American Graves Registration Service disinterred the remains of U.S. dead from the two cemeteries and transferred them to the Central Identification Laboratory at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. 

At that time, the laboratory staff was only able to confirm the identifications of 35 men from the USS Oklahoma. The AGRS buried the unidentified remains in 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu. 

Thick, black smoke fills the sky above several burning ships; one ship capsizes.
Pearl Harbor
In a historic photo, the battleship USS Oklahoma, foreground, capsizes during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. The battleship USS Maryland is behind the Oklahoma; the battleship USS West Virginia is on the right.
Photo By: National Archives
VIRIN: 411207-O-D0439-001M
Thick, black smoke comes from smokestacks as a ship is underway.
USS Oklahoma
The battleship USS Oklahoma is underway during sea trials in 1916.
Photo By: Courtesy of Popular Mechanics
VIRIN: 160901-O-D0439-001

In October 1949, a military board classified those who could not be identified as not recoverable.

DPAA has been working to identify the remains since 2015 when the USS Oklahoma project began. Scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System have used mitochondrial DNA and autosomal DNA analysis.