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80 years after Pearl Harbor, unidentified USS Oklahoma sailors are returned to Hawaii soil

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Eighty years to the day after a brutal attack from the sky cut short their lives, the sailors of the USS Oklahoma may now, finally, rest in peace.

On Tuesday, the Navy will rebury unidentifiable remains from 429 sailors and Marines killed when as many as eight Japanese torpedoes pulverized the port side of the huge vessel while it lay at anchor on Pearl Harbor’s Battleship Row on Dec. 7, 1941.

The service marks the close of a six-year project by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to identify the 394 Oklahoma crew members who could not be identified in the aftermath of the attack — including 21 from Nebraska and western Iowa.

The re-interment ceremony will return a casket containing bones too small for identification to an empty grave at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, also known as the Punchbowl.

The Oklahoma Project, led by anthropologists at the agency’s Offutt Air Force Base laboratory and aided by DNA analysts in Dover, Delaware, resulted in the identification of 361 crew men.

“We are done making IDs,” said Carrie LeGarde, an Offutt-based forensic anthropologist who leads the project. “We have done everything we can, at this point, with what we have.”

Three other caskets containing larger bones were buried last week. The Navy has separated them in the hope that they could be linked in the future to some of the 33 Oklahoma sailors who remain unidentified — perhaps through future advances in DNA technology, or if new DNA samples are obtained from families of USS Oklahoma casualties.

“We know what caskets they have gone into,” LeGarde said. “They could be accessed in the future if needed.”

Two of the still-unidentified Oklahoma sailors are from Nebraska: Lloyd McLaughlin of Bancroft and William Sellon of Randolph. A third, Jimmie Henrichsen, was born in Sioux City, Iowa, but was adopted and raised in Rapid City, South Dakota.

But the close of the Oklahoma Project is not the end of the effort to give names to the unknowns from Pearl Harbor. The Accounting Agency is continuing its work on identifying 45 sets of remains from battleships USS West Virginia and USS California. Both sank on Battleship Row, killing 209 sailors aboard them.

So far, 12 sailors from the West Virginia and two from the California have been identified, said Laurel Freas, the agency’s Hawaii-based anthropologist in charge of the project.

“We are still confident that we’re going to be able to identify the majority of the remains,” Freas said last week.

On the 80-year anniversary of what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy,” officials from the Navy, the Accounting Agency and USS Oklahoma families are focused on an identification project that surpassed goals set when it began six years ago. It was the biggest and most complex mass identification in the history of the agency and its predecessor organizations and the first large project for the Offutt lab, which opened in 2013.

“This is a momentous occasion,” its director, Kelly McKeague, said. “To state that it’s a milestone in the history of the Department of Defense is not an overstatement.”

LeGarde and two other Offutt anthropologists are in Hawaii for the Oklahoma ceremony, which is being limited to family members and invited guests. Separate Pearl Harbor ceremonies are being held at the USS Arizona Memorial and the USS Oklahoma Memorial.

The ceremony is being livestreamed on a military public affairs website, dvidshub.net/webcast/27648.

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro will speak at the service. About 80 family members will attend, said Capt. Robert McMahon, director of the Navy Casualty Office. 

Also attending is David Russell, 101, of Albany, Oregon, who survived the sinking 80 years ago by scrambling over the hull of his capsized ship and jumping to a rope dangling from the deck of the USS Maryland, moored adjacent to the Oklahoma. Russell’s brother-in-law, Walter Rogers, died on the Oklahoma and was identified in 2017.

In most cases, the families of the Oklahoma's dead crew members had given up decades ago on recovering the remains of their loved ones. The bones were soaked with oil and entombed in mud until the ship was raised and refloated in 1943. The remains were buried in two Honolulu cemeteries.

In 1947, the military disinterred and tried to identify them but had little success because of the limited forensic tools available at the time.

They were reburied in 1950, with only 35 crew members identified. Six more were identified in the mid-2000s through the efforts of Ray Emory, a Pearl Harbor survivor whose detective work and advocacy paved the way for the Oklahoma Project.

In 2015, DPAA disinterred the 61 caskets containing USS Oklahoma remains and shipped them to the new Offutt lab, which had plenty of space to examine the remains.

Over the next several years, LeGarde, Carrie Brown and other anthropologists catalogued and measured about 13,000 bones and took DNA samples from about 5,000.

Those samples were sent to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Dover, Delaware, where they were matched against DNA samples obtained from family members of almost all the USS Oklahoma missing.

When the project started, the Accounting Agency set a goal of identifying 80% of the 388 Oklahoma crew members then unidentified. They reached 92%.

“The Oklahoma is sort of the shooting star for DNA success,” Freas said.

Timothy McMahon, director of DNA operations for the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, said DNA degrades over time and can be difficult to obtain from samples as old as those from Pearl Harbor.

“Anything that’s been in the environment for 80-plus years is degraded,” he said. “It’s basically the time and environment that present the greatest challenges.”

But the DNA lab has successfully sequenced DNA from 96% of the bone samples, in part because of the tragic way the crew members’ remains were entombed.

“The oil seeped into (the bones) and prevented damage,” McMahon said.

That didn’t happen with the West Virginia and California casualties, whose remains were recovered more quickly. Freas said that is part of the reason why identifications from those ships have been slower.

“We’re using all the analytical tools in our arsenal to identify remains that belong together,” she said.

LeGarde said she has developed a strong connection to the men she has spent years identifying.

“It’s really emotional right now,” she said. “It’s an important part of our job to have that emotional connection, and to make contact with them.”

It seems a little surreal that the identification project that has dominated her life for the past six years is coming to a close.

“It’s closure for myself, too,” LeGarde said. “After Dec. 7, it will set in that it’s over. I know I’m going to cry my eyes out.”

The Oklahoma identifications have now wrapped up, but the burials are expected to continue for some time. Five burials are taking place this week. That includes services Saturday in California for Fireman 1st Class Denis Hiskett, 20, of Nebraska City, whose remains were identified in early 2021.

Hiskett will be buried near his parents at San Fernando Mission Cemetery in suburban Los Angeles. Much of his family moved to California in the 1950s, said Tom Hiskett, 78, his nephew and oldest living relative.

Details are sketchy about Hiskett’s early life because his surviving relatives said little about him, Tom Hiskett said.

“I made the mistake of bringing Denis up once at a family reunion,” he said. “They just didn’t want to talk about him.”

Denis Hiskett was born in Oklahoma. At some point during his childhood, his family (he had at least three brothers) moved to Nebraska City.

He was a good athlete and played high school football, said grandnephew J.D. Hiskett, 57, of Firestone, Colorado.

But he dropped out and enlisted in the Navy in the spring of 1940. Fatefully, he was assigned to the USS Oklahoma.

“He was at the wrong place at the wrong time and lost his life,” J.D. Hiskett said.

Several years ago, J.D.’s father, Jerry, and other relatives were contacted about providing a DNA sample in hopes of identifying Denis.

“It was out of the blue,” J.D. Hiskett said. “They were kind of surprised, I guess.”

He said a large contingent of family members are attending Saturday’s funeral. As a 20-year Marine Corps veteran, it means a lot to him that the Navy and the Accounting Agency are working to bring missing service members home.

“It’s so important for these lost souls,” he said. “I am so grateful for so many people I’ve never met. If I could shake their hand, buy them a drink, take them out for coffee, I’d do it.”


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