In 2015, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) began work on a program that aims to return home hundreds of soldiers and sailors killed during battle whose remains were unable to be identified when they died. One of the biggest challenges being targeted by the agency was the sinking of the USS Oklahoma (BB-37) during the December 7th, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
When the battleship sank, she took with her over 400 sailors. The remains of more than 300 of those men were recovered in such a state that they couldn’t be identified. Unable to return them to their families for burial, they were buried in mass graves and labeled as “unknown.” When the program was launched, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency began by exhuming the remains of these individuals and set off on the lengthy and arduous task to finally identify them so that they might be returned home to their families and home towns for the burials they were denied decades previously.
The success of the agency so far is the result of a lengthy process of hard work that started in mid-2015 with the opening of the Senator Daniel K. Inouye Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency building on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The 140,000-square-foot facility cost upwards of $80 million to design and construct, but the cost is proving to be justified as it has served as the laboratory and storage space for the program that has already identified the remains of hundreds of missing service members from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and beyond.
The Work of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency
The process to identify the remains of the sailors of USS Oklahoma and hundreds of others takes patience and plenty of dedication. The technology of DNA collection and matching didn’t become common until the early 1990s, meaning that none of the men lost during conflicts going back to the Pearl Harbor attack are linked to any database of DNA information.
For the program to succeed, one of the most important players is the genealogist who has to examine the individual’s family tree to find any living family members. Considering that an event like the Pearl Harbor attack occurred over 75 years ago, most of these family members never knew the serviceman being identified. In many cases, it’s a niece or nephew who may have grown up hearing stories of their long lost uncle.
Once a family member is identified, the program then asks them to provide a DNA sample, which many are willing to give without hesitation. Once a match is found, the family is notified and arrangements are made for reunification or reburial.
Since the start of the program in 2015, dozens of sailors from the wreckage of USS Oklahoma alone have either been returned to their home towns or reburied in their own plot.