Families urge use of new technology to identify strangers at Pearl Harbor
HONOLULU – William Edward Mann enlisted in the Navy after graduating from high school in rural Washington state. Guitarist, he learned the ukulele while stationed in Hawaii.
He has been presumed dead since December 7, 1941, when Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor and set off a massive explosion that sank his battleship USS Arizona, throwing the United States into World War II.
Now her niece is among some of the crewmembers’ families calling on the U.S. military to take advantage of advances in DNA technology to identify 85 Arizona Sailors and Marines who were buried as strangers. They say the military has unearthed and identified the remains of other Pearl Harbor battleships and should do the same for their loved ones.
“These men matter and they have served. They gave their lives for our country. And they deserve the same honor and respect as any military member past, present and future,” said Teri Mann Whyatt.
Arizona has claimed more lives than any other ship in Pearl Harbor, with 1,177 dead. More than 900 sank with the ship and have remained buried there ever since.
As with the remains of other sunken ships, the Navy considers those aboard Arizona to be in their final resting place. Families are not pleading for them to be removed and identified.
The problem is what to do with 85 Arizona strangers buried in a cemetery in Hawaii. It emerged in February when the Director of Defense POW / MIA Accounting Agency, who is responsible for finding and identifying the remains of U.S. military personnel from past conflicts, was questioned in a Facebook Live meeting when the agency would exhume.
Kelly McKeague said her agency spoke to the Navy about the exhumation of the unknowns from Arizona and their transfer to the ship without first identifying them. McKeague said he did not have a “pragmatic sense” to identify them.
This outraged some families who feared that the 85 remains would be placed on the sunken battleship without ever being identified.
The agency has since said it has no plans to move the remains of the cemetery to the ship. Rear Admiral Darius Banaji, deputy director of the agency, said it was only a possibility that was informally discussed a few years ago.
Banaji also said the agency did not plan to dig up the remains and try to identify them because they did not have sufficient documents.
The military has records on only half of Arizona’s missing people, he said. Of these, he has medical records – showing age, height and other information – for only half. He has dental records for only 130 men. Some documents were reportedly destroyed with the battleship. Others may have been lost in a fire in 1973 in a military personnel archives office.
And the military has only DNA samples from relatives of just 1% of Arizona’s missing crew members.
McKeague told The Associated Press that what he said about the identifications not being pragmatic referred to the lack of documentation, not the cost.
“We must use our limited resources equitably for all families and do so in the most efficient and effective way possible,” he said in a statement.
The agency, which aims to trace more than 80,000 servicemen missing from World War II and beyond, has successfully identified strangers from the USS Oklahoma, another battleship that capsized during the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
In 2015, the agency unearthed the remains of 388 Oklahoma sailors and marines from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, the same cemetery where Arizona’s unknowns are buried.
He acted after the military drafted a new policy allowing the exhumation of groups of unknown servicemen if he expected to identify at least 60% of the group.
The agency had dental records, age and height information for the vast majority of Oklahoma strangers. The army also had family DNA samples for more than 80%.
The agency predicted it would identify 80% of Oklahoma’s remains, which were buried in 61 coffins. This month, it has identified 344, or 88%, and plans to name more.
A group of families led by Randy Stratton, whose father, Donald Stratton, suffered severe burns as a sailor in Arizona but lived to be 97, drafted a petition demanding the agency identify the 85 unknown from Arizona.
He is committed to helping families submit DNA samples. He also lobbied for the agency to use genetic genealogy techniques like those used by law enforcement to resolve unresolved cases.
Stratton said about 30 to 40 families of strangers from Arizona joined him.
From a scientific standpoint, nothing prevents the military from identifying the Arizona remains, said Michael Coble, associate director of the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas.
“It’s definitely going to be a huge undertaking. But I think the technology has evolved so that this kind of work can be done,” said Coble, who was research chief at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab from 2006 to 2010.
The lab, which dates back to 1991, has long used DNA to identify military remains.
A more recent method uses SNPs, which are unique to an individual – except for identical twins – and provide a kind of fingerprint. The laboratory has not been able to use this technique much as it has not been able to obtain adequate SNP profiles from degraded remains. Last month, however, he completed a project to obtain these samples.
This technique would help the lab distinguish individuals even when it is only able to extract tiny fragments of DNA. SNPs are the same type of DNA sample that services like Ancestry.com and 23andMe use to help match people with long-lost relatives or learn about their propensity for certain illnesses.
The DNA profiles derived from this technique could theoretically be used for the type of investigative genetic genealogy work that Stratton advocates.
But first, the Defense POW / MIA Accounting Agency should decide they want to identify the Arizona unknowns.
For Stratton, it would be worth it.
“Why wouldn’t you want to find out who these guys are?” Stratton said.