Those Left Behind: Why So Many Fallen Men Remain On Board Their Ship

December 06, 2016

On December 7, 1941, 1,999 sailors, 233 soldiers, 109 marines, and 49 civilians lost their lives when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The attack occurred early in the morning, around breakfast time, and many of the men had just started work for the day. Aboard the ships, no one was suspecting as they went about their morning routines. Some had just sat down to eat, while others had been up for hours.

One of the bombs the Japanese dropped onto the USS Arizona hit the forward deck, resulting in an explosion that ignited fuel stores and powder magazines, tearing the ship apart and lifting her from the water. Almost immediately, 1,177 sailors and marines were killed, and the ship was on fire.

The USS Arizona became a burial site as the fires continued for two and a half days, hampering rescue attempts.

Of the 1,177 men who perished on board, only 107 were ever positively identified. When you look back and see images of the devastation, and imagine what it must have been like, it isn’t hard to understand how that’s possible.

First, many bodies were simply never found, possibly cremated in the fires. Second, there were bodies that had been removed from the ship when it was salvaged, but the remains were unidentifiable. They were placed in mass graves and later moved to the Punchbowl National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Finally, many of the bodies that were located in the rear of the ship were left there as they were unidentifiable.

This was not only the case with the USS Arizona, but also the Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Utah. Although every effort was made to identify the bodies of those who were killed, in many cases it was simply not possible.

Punchbowl Cemetery

In total, 429 men were killed on the Oklahoma, though in the years after the war only 35 were officially identified. The remains of hundreds of others were buried in the Punchbowl National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. With advances in technology and in forensic science, it’s believed that using the DNA of relatives today will help to identify the remaining victims. In 2015, the Pentagon announced that it would exhume the remains of 388 sailors and marines killed on the USS Oklahoma for DNA identification.

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