Bringing home the final USS Oklahoma fallen

| December 11, 2015 | 0 Comments
USS Oklahoma BB-37

USS Oklahoma BB-37

 

Story and photos by Air Force Staff Sgt. Chris Hubenthal
Defense Media Activity-Hawaii News Bureau

HONOLULU — Members of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency worked alongside caretakers of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (NMCP) to disinter the last of the 388 unknown service members associated with the USS Oklahoma.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, destroying nearly 20 naval vessels, 200 aircraft and killing more than 2,000 U.S. service members.

Amongst the destruction was the USS Oklahoma, which was struck by torpedoes with a crew of more than 400 still aboard.

Nearly 74 years later, the possibility of giving a name to the 388 unidentified heroes of the historical battleship is closer to becoming a reality, thanks to joint efforts.

Caretakers from the NMCP helped exhume the final four caskets and honor guard members of the DPAA performed a dignified transfer during the ceremony.

“We’ve been working for multiple years with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency,” said James Horton, director of the NMCP. “A decision was made partly from push from the families to get some final resolve, and we got special permission to do those disinterments for the agency, as opposed to having them contract out.”

Horton said that supporting events like the dignified transfer is more than just a part of the job for staff members at the NMCP.

“It is part of what we feel is a personal responsibility for us to take care of our fellow veterans,” Horton said. “For our guys to be able to be a part of that, to be able to help get that process going and to do it with the passion and caring that we do, it makes it that much more personal for us, as well.”

Sgt. 1st Class John Maze, DPAA mortuary affairs specialist and team sergeant, served as the team leader for the honor guard detail that rendered honors for the unknown heroes of the USS Oklahoma.

“Everybody knows that it’s a high visibility event and we prepare for it,” Maze said. “It is just an honor to serve in that position and bring our service members home and get them back to their families.”

At the end of the ceremony, the last four caskets were transported to the DPAA and, although the final unknown service members have been disinterred, the process now shifts to identifying the fallen.

Dr. Debra Zinni, DPAA forensic anthropologist, explained how she and her colleagues work to identify the heroes of the USS Oklahoma.

“The remains associated to the USS Oklahoma will be accessioned in the laboratory here in Hawaii where we will cut for DNA for some of the remains,” Zinni said. “The dental analysis will be conducted here in our laboratory here in Hawaii. The post cranial remains will be sent to our laboratory in Offutt, Neb., where additional skeletal testing and DNA testing will also be conducted.”

Zinni said that the whole process wouldn’t be possible without the family members of the fallen.

“The disinterment for the remains associated with the USS Oklahoma would not have been able to be accomplished without the family members’ support,” Zinni said. “The families needed to provide a family reference sample, and their overwhelming support really is what drives that process.”

DPAA estimates that 80 percent of the remains associated with the USS Oklahoma will be identified within five years and, as the next chapter in bringing closure to the families of the fallen begins, DPAA continues to work toward finding and identifying other heroes across the world.

“This mission is important because service members, past, present and future, need to know that if they need to make the ultimate sacrifice, they will not be forgotten,” Zinni said. “This agency will use all of its resources to investigate, locate and recover their remains and provide those answers to the nation and their family members. There is a saying that ‘some gave all and all gave some’ and that was many years ago, and the way that we can honor their sacrifice and their service is to provide those answers to the families and repatriate their remains.”

The task of identifying the USS Oklahoma unknowns was a multifaceted process involving several agencies and joint service teams, to include the NMCP, Navy Service Casualty Officers and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory.

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Category: News, Observances

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