DNA Identification and the Men of the Oklahoma
For more than seven decades, the families of many of the 429 men who perished when the USS Oklahoma (BB-37) sank were unable to give their loved ones a proper burial, since their remains were unidentified, lying in mass graves at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Punchbowl Crater on the island of Oahu. This is the story of how improvements in DNA identification have enabled researchers to finally reunite scores of these families with their lost relatives.
On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a deadly strike on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor and nearby air fields with the intent of crippling the US Pacific Fleet and putting an end to American interference in the Imperial nation’s further expansion into Southeast Asian and Pacific territories.
Though the attack was unsuccessful in destroying the fleet, it did leave 2,403 Americans dead. Among the fallen were 429 men on the USS Oklahoma. When their remains were finally recovered, they were too damaged to be identified.
A New Technology Emerges
In 2015, after 74 years of being interred in mass graves marked “unknown,” those remains finally began to be given the opportunity to return to their families and the hometowns they left behind. The Department of Defense and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency turned to science in order to give these men the proper burials they deserved, and provide their families with the closure they were robbed of over 70 years ago.
Forensics and the Men of the Oklahoma
Since 2015, dozens of sailors from the USS Oklahoma wreckage have been—and continue to be—identified and returned home thanks to the efforts of the DoD/DPAA. These efforts only became possible with the evolution of forensic science over the years.
The use of forensic science for the identification of remains has been around since the late 19th century, first implemented by men like criminal jurist Hans Gross.
Even after 70 years of being buried in the ground, mingled with the remains of other Oklahoma casualties, each individual body can still be matched to something that links them to their genealogy. That “something” is the DNA of surviving family members, typically provided by descendants who often know very little about the relative they’re hoping to identify. This DNA is then compared with DNA found in the remains of the suspected relative to try and find a match. In many cases, it’s a niece or nephew who may have heard tales of their uncle’s heroism at Pearl Harbor, and they're often surprised by the sudden phone call that says their relative has been identified.
The method used to identify these remains, DNA analysis, actually didn’t even come around until the 1980s, when it was first used by Sir Alec Jefferys in 1984. So while we thank the DoD and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency for their efforts over what is estimated to be a five-year period to identify as many of the lost sailors of the Oklahoma as possible, some of that gratitude should also be directed towards the pioneers of forensic science.