On December 2nd, 2017, just five days prior to the 76th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced that it had identified 100 of the men who perished when the USS Oklahoma (BB-37) was destroyed.
On the morning of December 7th, 1941, radar showed a large group of aircraft headed toward the island of Oahu. At 0755, it became clear that it was not the expected arrival of American planes, but rather a carrier-based Japanese striking force, aiming to cause devastating damage.
As the first explosions erupted over Pearl Harbor, launching a two-hour attack on the American naval base, the eight battleships in port became the prime targets, while smaller vessels struggled to help evacuating crewmen. Beyond the harbor, airfields were targeted to ensure American pilots remained grounded, unable to launch a counterattack.
The attack of Pearl Harbor left the nation shocked, heartbroken, and terrified, and unfortunately for many families, those emotions wouldn’t be alleviated with news of their loved ones’ survival. During the course of the attack, over 2,400 Americans died, and 429 of them were serving aboard the USS Oklahoma.
A proud part of the US Pacific Fleet, the Oklahoma was one of two battleships that didn’t survive the attack and were completely destroyed, but her story is much more tragic than the material loss. Of the 429 crewmen killed when the Oklahoma went down, only a handful were identified and were given the honor of a proper burial. The rest of them, some 388 men, whose remains were unable to be identified, were buried in unmarked graves. With DNA matching many years off, they would remain unknown for decades, their families never given the closure that comes with laying their loved one to rest.
In 2015, when DNA matching had become much more prevalent, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency began their effort to finally identify the remains of the unknown men of the Oklahoma. Over the span of five years, the agency hopes to be able to identify most, if not all, of the unknown sailors.
Progress was slow at first, as living family members needed to be tracked down for DNA to be collected. In 2016 and 2017, however, many of the Oklahoma’s men were finally identified. Two years after the start of the program, over one-fourth of the unknown sailors have been identified and many of them returned home to their families for burial. Those who haven’t been returned to their home towns remain in Honolulu, interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
Based on the agency’s estimates, 80% of the battleship’s missing crew will be identified by 2020.