Nov. 9, 2015 –
Under a serene morning sky, save a low, solemn cadence, honor guardsmen assigned from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) escort the last 4 caskets containing the remains of unidentified service members lost on the USS Oklahoma to loading trucks from their plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (NMCP).
The initiative to disinter these 61 caskets began five months ago, after the Deputy Secretary of Defense, Robert O. Work, released a memo allowing the Department of Defense to include remains commingled during the salvage operations of the USS Oklahoma in its identification efforts. Over the last six months DPAA, with the help of the Department of Veteran Affairs, exhumed the remains of up to 388 Service members from 45 graves at the NMCP.
After the remains are verified and accessioned into the DPAA Laboratory, the identification process begins.
“[The] identifications of the dental remains will be completed in Hawaii first,” said Ben Soria, the lead evidence coordinator at the DPAA Lab.
According to Soria, the re-sorting and processing of the post-cranial remains will be performed at the DPAA Laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha. Forensic scientists there will also organize the remains into individuals using anthropological and DNA analysis.
DPAA, in concert with the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, will use DNA samples donated by applicable family members, as well as medical and dental records, in the identification process. The agency estimates that 80 percent of the unknown remains associated with the USS Oklahoma can be identified within five years.
More than 70 years have passed since the USS Oklahoma capsized in defense of Pearl Harbor. With new technologies and advances in forensic science now available, DPAA will be able to put names to those previously buried as unknown, something long owed to those who fell. Those remains that still cannot be identified will be reinterred in a known group burial in Arlington National Cemetery, the NMCP, or another as of yet unknown course of action may be taken.
“As important as it is to return the fallen to their families, it’s equally if not more important to the nation,” said Brigadier General Mark Spindler, DPAA deputy director. “This is our sacred promise that we make to our sons and daughters when we put them in harm’s way and ask them to do the most difficult tasks around.”
“We must work as hard as we can to restore their names,” Spindler continued. “Right now they remain nameless out there, but what we do when we fulfill the nation’s promise is restore the name; give the name back to the nation and give it back to their family.”