LINCOLN — With a call to “present arms,” six-member teams of Offutt Air Force Base airmen lifted each of 10 flag-draped transfer cases, then carried them slowly and solemnly out of the hangar to a waiting truck.
The cases contained the last unidentifiable remains from the 429 men who died aboard the USS Oklahoma in the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Most of them are small bones that were not sampled for DNA.
A truck took them to an Air Force C-17, which whisked them off to Hawaii. There they’ll be reburied, for a final time, in Honolulu’s National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, on Dec. 7, the 80th anniversary of the shocking raid that brought the United States into World War II.
“It’s amazing. It’s a closure moment,” said Sheri Spomer, the grand-niece of Gerald Clayton, who died aboard the Oklahoma. “It’s kind of come full circle.”
About 300 people, including Gov. Pete Ricketts, attended the “Group Remains Honorable Carry” ceremony at the Lincoln Airport Thursday. The ceremony was held in Lincoln because the Offutt runway is closed for repairs.
It marked the official conclusion of a six-year effort by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to assemble and identify the skeletal remains of 388 USS Oklahoma sailors and Marines who had been buried in Hawaii as “unknowns” after the ship was salvaged in 1943.
That effort has led to the identification of 343 of those men — with more to follow in the coming weeks and months pending results from the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Delaware, said Kelly McKeague, the accounting agency’s director.
The effort, he said, “exceeded expectations.”
“Most of these 343 sailors and Marines cannot be found in history books or documentaries, but their own acts of heroism are not lost to history,” McKeague said.
He cited the story of Leo and Rudolph Blitz, of Lincoln, one of six sets of brothers (and the only identical twins) who died aboard the Oklahoma.
McKeague said Rudolph Blitz was on the deck of the battleship soon after it was struck by as many as eight Japanese torpedoes in the opening minutes of the attack.
Instead of abandoning ship, Rudolph told a shipmate he was going below decks to find his twin, who was on duty running one of the ship’s generators.
The Oklahoma sank within minutes. Neither of the Blitz brothers was ever heard from again.
They were identified based on a DNA match with their 93-year-old sister, Betty Pitsch, and buried in Lincoln in 2019.
“Leo and Rudolph Blitz came into the world together, enlisted together at 17, and together made the supreme sacrifice at the tender age of 20,” McKeague said.
McKeague gave credit for the Oklahoma Project to Pearl Harbor veteran Ray Emory, a retired Navy chief petty officer, who died in 2018 at 97.
Emory had broken into a gun locker aboard his light cruiser, the USS Honolulu, without permission and opened fire on the attacking aircraft.
He retired in Hawaii in 1985, and was stunned to learn that the great majority of USS Oklahoma veterans had been buried as “unknowns” because of the failure of a postwar effort to identify them.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, he spent 20 years obtaining personnel files and burial files, and matched specific sailors to specific graves. He joined with USS Oklahoma survivors and lobbied the Navy to open one of 62 caskets in 2003, resulting in five identifications. Finally, in 2015, the Pentagon agreed to disinter all of the remains and ship them to the lab at Offutt.
“He fought against the Navy tradition that the Honolulu cemetery would be the final resting place of the (unknown) Oklahoma sailors and Marines,” McKeague said. “Chief Emory’s efforts were the foundation of the USS Oklahoma Project.”
The arrival of the USS Oklahoma remains was a pivotal moment for the Offutt lab, too, which was opened in June 2013 in the former World War II-era Martin Bomber Plant.
When the project began, the lab had only eight employees, said Dr. Carrie Brown, the lab’s co-manager and its first forensic anthropologist.
Now, she said, the lab has 52 employees, including 20 anthropologists, almost all of whom have worked on cataloging and identifying the Oklahoma remains.
“It’s monumental. Can you believe this?” Brown after the ceremony. “It’s the first project the lab is closing. It’s not even bittersweet. It’s just pride.”
The lab has identified all but four of 23 missing USS Oklahoma sailors from Nebraska and western Iowa.
The identification of Walter Pentico, 18 of Lexington, was announced June 4, but the date and location of his burial haven’t been set. William Tucker, 19, of Bedford, Iowa, will be buried in his hometown June 30. And Wesley Brown, 25, of Oto, Iowa, will be buried in nearby Smithland Aug. 28.
The next Nebraska burial will take place July 17, when Louis Tushla, 25, is buried in Atkinson. Dozens of relatives are expected to attend, said Monsignor James Gilg of Omaha, Tushla’s nephew. Gilg and his sister, Mary Clare, attended Thursday’s ceremony in Lincoln.
Tushla’s parents, Peter and Susanna, lost two sons in the war. Harold Tushla served on the crew of a B-24 bomber that crashed on a raid in Naples, Italy, in 1943.
His body was never recovered, either.
“One of the things their mother used to say is, ‘I hope someday the boys will be able to come home,’ ” Mary Clare Gilg said.
Rob Clayton, 70, of Schuyler, said his uncle Gerald Clayton’s Navy photo was on the wall of his grandparents’ home when he was growing up. But little was said about him.
“They didn’t want to talk about him at all,” Clayton said. “They had copies of the letters Grandpa Clayton sent to the Navy, wanting to know where his boy was. He couldn’t get answers.”
The USS Oklahoma Project represents a long-delayed reckoning.
“The families ... received long-sought answers, and were reunited with their loved ones simply because the United States of America fulfilled a promise made to them,” McKeague said. “It’s a sacred obligation, and a moral imperative.”