OMAHA — Omaha-based command is caught up in a dispute over whether to try to ID Pearl Harbor “unknowns.”
A plan to use DNA to identify the remains of sailors and Marines killed in the Pearl Harbor attack has caused a split within the military community over what to do with the remains of thousands of unknown service members from the wars of the mid-20th century.
Should these bodies be dug up and returned home, at considerable cost, to places like Cozad, Bloomfield and Central City, in keeping with the sentiment “no one left behind”? Or should they be left in their decades-old resting places far from home?
Thanks to DNA technology and an injection of cash from Congress, there’s a plan to identify the remains of nearly 400 “unknown” sailors and Marines from the battleship USS Oklahoma, torpedoed and sunk in the first minutes of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Seventeen of the sailors are from Nebraska and western Iowa.
The task likely would take place at a giant new military forensics lab at Offutt Air Force Base.
The logistics would be daunting. Most of the Pearl Harbor dead were entombed anonymously, their remains mingled with those of their shipmates. They are scattered in dozens of modest group tombs throughout Honolulu’s famous Punchbowl cemetery, remote from their families.
A single USS Oklahoma grave opened in 2003 yielded five identifiable sets of remains, each returned to grateful families and buried with full military honors.
“These towns are eager to get these kids back, and honor them,” said Paul Goodyear, 95, president of the USS Oklahoma Association and a Pearl Harbor survivor. “They go all out. You’d have thought it was Independence Day.”
The Navy has proposed forming a working group, representing several military commands involved in finding and identifying unknown remains, to make decisions about the Oklahoma dead. What that group does could set a precedent for other group remains.
The job of identifying the Pearl Harbor dead has fallen to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. A precursor of the command was formed 20 years ago and assigned the permanent job of finding and identifying missing service members from the Vietnam War. Later, Congress asked it to search for those lost during the Korean and Cold Wars, and for World War II air crews lost in the Pacific.
Some veterans say JPAC long resisted veterans’ pleas to identify some of the hundreds of unknowns buried just a few miles from its Honolulu headquarters in the Punchbowl, an extinct volcano converted to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific after World War II.
“They’ve got these kids right under their noses, and they won’t dig them up,” Goodyear complained.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command public affairs office didn’t respond to four requests over the past two weeks for an interview with senior JPAC leaders.
A Government Accountability Office audit released in June said the Defense Department didn’t assign the job of identifying World War II veterans other than Pacific air crews until 2009.
In that year, Congress substantially boosted the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command budget, which had jumped from $51 million in 2008 to nearly $100 million four years later, and ordered it to boost its identifications from about 70 per year to 200 by 2015.
Traditionally JPAC had focused on complex and costly archaeological excavations in Korea, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. The new quota and expanded mission made the command more receptive to opening the graves of the unknowns from the Oklahoma. John Byrd, director of JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory, recently told the Oklahoman newspaper of Oklahoma City he thought at least three-quarters of the ship’s dead could be identified using DNA technology.
Accordingly, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command has requested permission to open all of the graves from the Oklahoma, as well as graves at the Punchbowl containing smaller numbers of bones linked to the Pearl Harbor battleships California (100 dead) and West Virginia (66 dead). The decision is up to the Army, which holds authority over the graves of all unknowns.
JPAC’s plan has run into opposition from the Navy. Officials there have said they don’t like the idea of exposing long-buried remains “outside of the sanctity of the grave” for an accounting that could take years and still leave many remains unidentified. The Navy has no authority in the matter, but voices concern because the single grave that was opened in 2003 yielded not only the five identified sailors but also the bones of about 100 more that aren’t yet identified and remain in JPAC’s lab.
Lt. Cmdr. Sarah Flaherty said the Navy hopes to re-inter those remains in a ceremony on Dec. 7, 2014. They’re seeking the Army’s support.
“(The Navy) maintains any ID effort will take many years, if not decades,” Flaherty said. “A memorial ceremony in the near future offers temporary closure and a cogent place for survivors to treat as a final resting place in the interim.”
Jean Cook Sheehan, 90, was close to her brother, Grant Cook Jr., who was two years older. Their mother died when both were babies. An aunt and uncle raised them in their hometown of Cozad.
She said Grant quit his job at a garage in 1940 to join the Navy and find adventure. That’s how he landed in Pearl Harbor.
Sheehan learned of the attack after coming home from a Sunday movie matinee. She shared the nation’s numb horror, and feared for her brother.
“When I heard my brother was missing — just complete shock, so much sadness,” said Sheehan, who now lives in Lecanto, Fla. “It was hard for us to believe that he really was gone.”
She said her father never forgave himself for signing the papers that allowed his son and namesake to enlist before he was 21.
She has mixed feelings about unsealing the Oklahoma graves. At her age, she doesn’t imagine returning to Cozad to visit even if he were to come back. The VFW post that carries his name seems like a fitting memorial.
“From what I understand, the remains are in an absolutely beautiful place. One thought is, why disturb them?” she said. “On the other hand, it would be nice to know that, if they are identified, he is back home.”