By Will Cole, Honolulu Star-Advertiser
At least 51 unidentified crew members of the USS Oklahoma were returned to Hickam Field on Thursday—and while no families were there to rejoice over the identification of a relative, as has been the case for 343 other crew mainly in recent years—the U.S. military gave the Dec. 7, 1941, heroes full honors.
An Air Force C-17 cargo aircraft transported 10 U.S. flag-draped caskets containing the unidentified remains from Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, where the Defense POW /MIA Accounting Agency has a lab, to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
Marines and sailors in groups of five conducted an "honorable carry " of the caskets off the plane for the eventual interment of the men back into the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl as "unknowns " on Dec. 7—the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack.
The return of the men who couldn't be identified—as dignified as it was—belies the success of the accounting agency at so far identifying 88 % of the Oklahoma casualties who were exhumed from Punchbowl for return to families.
A total of 429 men were killed on the Oklahoma when it was battered into submission by nine Japanese torpedoes and rolled over in Pearl Harbor on the day of infamy.
Thirty-five were identified shortly after. A total of 394 sailors and Marines subsequently were buried as unknowns at Punchbowl after the war. Six were disinterred and identified before the accounting agency, under pressure from Congress to make more identifications annually, was given the go-ahead from the Pentagon to disinter the remaining 388 in 2015.
Advances in science—and in particular DNA—made the IDs possible nearly three-quarters of a century after the death of the men. The accounting agency sent the heavily commingled remains, over 13, 000 bones, to Nebraska for examination.
Six had been previously identified between 2007 and 2010. Between those six and 337 since 2015, 343 identifications have been made.
At a ceremony Thursday morning in Nebraska, accounting agency Director Kelly McKeague said many of the Oklahoma families "received long-sought answers " about loved ones because the United States fulfilled a promise that is embodied on the black-and-white POW /MIA flag, "that you are not forgotten."
McKeague noted that two Medal of Honor recipients—Ens. Francis Flaherty and Ens. John Charles England—were identified as a result of the USS Oklahoma project, which is coming to a close.
"However, most of the 343 identified sailors and Marines cannot be found in history books or documentaries, " McKeague said.
Machinist's Mate 2nd Class Leo Blitz and his twin brother, Fireman 1st Class Rudolph Blitz, were just 20 when they were killed on the Oklahoma.
"They joined the Navy together as teenagers with an enlistment that was to end on their 21st birthday in April 1942, " McKeague said.
Rudolph was above decks when the torpedoes started to hit. "Machinist mate Leo was below deck working on one of the ship's generators, " according to McKeague. "One of the surviving shipmates recalled Rudolph saying, 'I'm going down to get my brother, ' and he was never seen again."
With a DNA sample from their 93-year-old sister, Betty, the brothers were identified in 2019 and laid to rest alongside their parents and other siblings, McKeague said.
The unidentified remains of 51 crew members—along with bits of bone from other crew who may have been previously identified—were sent to Hawaii on the C-17 after the Nebraska ceremony. DNA and other methods of identification have not been able to result in a match for the 51, with the accounting agency hoping it can make a few more IDs before the Dec. 7 reburial at Punchbowl.
It's up to the Navy to decide how to bury the remains of the men who were transported back in 10 caskets.
Adm. Samuel Paparo, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, said at the Hawaii portion of the "honorable carry " ceremony that the effort made to return fallen and missing serv ice members "is a great tradition that reflects our American values."
Nearly two dozen uniformed military members stood at attention on the tarmac and saluted as the caskets were rolled off the C-17 that was parked near the historic base operations building. Taps concluded the ceremony.
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