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How cutting edge science is unearthing the truths of 80 year old mysteries of war and carnage

How cutting edge science is unearthing the truths of 80 year old mysteries of war and carnage

Mess Attendant 2nd Class Jesus Garcia, stationed aboard the USS Oklahoma, was getting ready to attend to church on Sunday, December 7, 1941.

Japanese dive bombers launched a surprise assault on Pearl Harbor just before 8 a.m., and the battleship, wounded by torpedoes, started to capsize. To escape, several crew members dove into a sea of flaming oil or crawled over mooring lines.

Japanese Dive Bomber via US National Archives which are Public Domain

In the hours that followed, rescuers drilled through the hull and hatches to extricate those trapped within. However, about half of the crew of 864 men were entombed, becoming some of the first American victims of World War II. Garcia, 21, was one of them, having joined the Navy in the US island of Guam.

Garcia finished his journey on October 6, after almost 80 years.

The aftermath via US National Archives which are Public Domain

The mourners lined the aisles of Santa Sophia Catholic Church, dressed in traditional floral shirts and gowns from Garcia’s home Guam and holding handmade bracelets of red, white, and blue beads, had no idea the sailor in the Navy’s sole hazy picture of him. But they’d heard the tale about the day he went missing.

The journey of Jesus Garcia’s remains to a burial with full military honors this fall at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego is a story of pain and loss shared by tens of thousands of military families whose relatives died in faraway battles of World War II but never received a proper homecoming.

Pearl Harbor aftermath via US National Archives which are Public Domain

However, it is also part of a revolutionary scientific endeavor by the Pentagon that has enhanced the military’s ability to ultimately identify battle fatalities from centuries before, creating a last chapter in the history of the “date which will live in infamy.”

The USS Oklahoma Project, as it was officially named, was previously thought to be so far-fetched that it nearly didn’t happen. Even once the go-ahead was given, investigators fell across roadblocks that prompted them to explore ground-breaking procedures for isolating, matching, and identifying the commingled remains of soldiers lost under circumstances that were previously considered impossible.

Pearl Harbor via US National Archives which are Public Domain
View of the USS West Virginia (BB-48) on fire, immediately after the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941; the USS Tennessee (BB-43) is the sunken ship beside the West Virginia.
Credit: Unknown. (Smithsonian Institution)

Investigators were eventually able to identify 361 of the 394 crew members.

The long-awaited reunion of these young men occurs at a tumultuous period in American history. In small ways, funerals held in recent weeks across the country — from small towns like New London, Wis., and Cleveland, Kan., to the suburbs of greater Los Angeles — have restored a sense of common purpose to communities in the midst of raging political battles over disputed elections, racially charged court cases, and even the proper way to end the nation’s longest war.

Pearl Harbor via USMC Archives via Public Domain

The detective story truly starts in 1942, in the months after the assault on Pearl Harbor.

Six ships were sunk or destroyed, including the Oklahoma. However, it was the most significant of the salvage projects. It was lifted and refloated between 1942 and 1944, mostly because it was obstructing a major berth where it had been stranded off Ford Island.

Pearl Harbor via US National Archives which are Public Domain

There was an attempt to identify everyone, but the effort was beyond their capabilities so many were placed in caskets and buried en masse to give them dignity.

For 60 years, that was the end of the story, until Ray Emory, one of the Pearl Harbor survivors (he was a sailor on the USS Honolulu), persuaded the military to allow the exhumation of a single casket after discovering records from the recovery and burials that suggested that five sets of Oklahoma remains could still be identified using newly available forensic techniques.

Pearl Harbor via Robert Sullivan is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

When military officials uncovered the coffin, it was quickly evident how hopeless the endeavor to identify the soldiers was. There were no five sailors buried in the one grave. It was made out of the DNA of 94 different individuals.

To determine which bones belonged to whom, DNA retrieved from the remains would have to be compared to samples collected from their living relatives.

Pearl Harbor Photographed from Ford Island [Hawaii], with a dredging line in the foreground.”..Credit: Unknown. (Smithsonian Institution) Public Domain

Collecting such material would be a massive endeavor in what the command refers to as its greatest such operation in breadth and complexity.

Beginning in 2009, the Pentagon relied on a team of genealogists to find the crew’s living relatives, who were asked to provide three cheek swabs, one for testing and two more “in case there was a collection issue or to be re-tested later with new DNA testing technologies,” according to Tim McMahon, director of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory.

Pearl Harbor via US National Archives which are Public Domain

It wasn’t until 2015 that the Defense Department finally gave the lab permission to exhume all of the Oklahoma’s undiscovered graves.

It quickly became clear that mitochondrial DNA, which is transmitted through the maternal line, was insufficient to distinguish several of the seafarers. Mitochondrial DNA is very straightforward to gather due to its abundance, but it also implies that relatives who may be potential donors for a match are restricted to those with unbroken maternal lineage.

Pearl Harbor via US National Archives which are Public Domain

Unlike Jesus Garcia, who was one of the few non-Caucasian crew men (he was relegated to positions supporting the ship’s commanders in a still-segregated Navy), the great bulk of the Oklahoma crew was white. They were around the same age (usually between the ages of 18 and 25) and mainly the same height (the average between five-foot-seven and five-foot-nine).

It wasn’t only that the bone length and size were so close. There were multiple occurrences of overlapping genetic markers; in other words, the sailors’ forebears were so similar that they were linked even if they were not.

Pearl Harbor via US National Archives which are Public Domain

One of the DNA sequences, for example, matched the bones of 25 Caucasian people. “So, 25 people all have that same mitochondrial DNA and many of those were about the same height and age,” explained LeGarde. “So, the anthropologists were kind of stuck again. What do we do next?”

Investigators realized they needed DNA samples from the crew members’ paternal ancestors. This substance is less abundant in each cell and hence more difficult to gather. However, it is more exact, providing investigators with a larger possible pool of relatives to compare samples to unexplained remains. This necessitated the collection of additional DNA samples from relatives.

Pearl Harbor via US National Archives which are Public Domain

Six pairs of siblings perished aboard the Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor, including two sets in which one sibling was recognized after the assault and one remained unaccounted for until recently. The Blitz brothers, 20, a set of twins from Lincoln, Nebraska, were among the unknowns.

The Oklahoma Project experts identified the Blitz brothers using a combination of dental records, anthropological examination of their physical remains, and mitochondrial DNA.

Pearl Harbor via US National Archives which are Public Domain

Their relatives were shocked. “My sister called me and said, ‘They’ve identified the twins,’” Powell, 69, recalled the surprise news he received in May 2019. “I really didn’t think we’d ever, ever get that call.”

Last year, the twins’ only surviving sister, Betty Pitsch, then 91, was there to welcome them home.

There are still those yet identified, but the scientists hope that the future and further tools will be available to continue their work.

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