Four years after they were exhumed from a military cemetery in Hawaii, oil-soaked bones from the sailors and Marines who perished at Pearl Harbor aboard the USS Oklahoma still take up more than half of the exam tables in Offutt Air Force Base’s forensic laboratory.
Femurs and tibias, patellas and skulls, radiuses and ulnas, organized into incomplete skeletons. They are laid out respectfully, feet toward the American flag.
Now all they need is names.
“We’re not going to stop as long as we can still individually identify anyone,” said Carrie LeGarde, the forensic anthropologist who is leading the Defense Department POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s USS Oklahoma identification project.
Four years ago, the accounting agency exhumed 61 caskets from a military cemetery in Hawaii containing the bones of as many as 394 sailors and Marines who died when the battleship was sunk at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. They couldn’t be identified and were buried as “unknowns.”
They were brought to the accounting agency’s then-new lab at Offutt. It is the largest identification of group remains undertaken at the lab.
So far, 242 of the Oklahoma men have been identified, the remains returned to families who were left grieving and scarred by the loss.
Like the family of Gerald Clayton of Central City, Nebraska, who died within minutes of his best friend and cousin, Bob Clayton, a sailor killed on the USS Arizona. They were honored last summer not only by their descendants, but by the whole town of Central City, when Gerald’s body was returned home for burial.
Or the family of Joseph Maule of Bloomfield, Nebraska, whose older brother, V.K. Maule, never forgave himself for signing papers allowing Joseph to enlist at age 17. V.K., his wife, and their 13 children would pray every night for “Uncle Joe” to come home. He was buried in Bloomfield last June.
Or the family of George C. Ford of Carroll, Iowa, whose family rarely mentioned his name after he died aboard the Oklahoma — but whose brother named a son after him six years later. George Ford was buried alongside his parents in a cemetery near Carroll last summer.
“At first I was just shocked, to know that somebody cared enough to keep researching,” Ford’s grandniece, Rhonda Maurer of Omaha, told The World-Herald in 2018. “It’s just been exciting. And really unbelievable.”
Of 22 USS Oklahoma crew members who lived in Nebraska or Iowa, 12 have so far been identified. The most recent was Petty Officer 2nd Class Daryle Artley, 21, who grew up in Maywood, Nebraska (south of North Platte). He moved with his family to Washington state while he was in high school. His brother, Richard, also served on the Oklahoma but survived.
The Offutt anthropologists sorted more than 13,000 bones, and took DNA samples from 5,000 of the larger ones. Those bones have yielded more than 300 unique DNA sequences, said Carrie Brown, a forensic anthropologist and the co-manager of the Offutt lab.
The pace of identifications has picked up in large part because of a program developed three years ago by a University of Nebraska at Omaha information and technology science professor, Sachin Pawaskar, and one of his students, Ryan Ernst.
They developed the program, called the Commingled Remains and Analytics Ecosystem, or CoRA, to simplify the process of matching bones belonging to the same skeleton.
The program analyzes the size, appearance and other characteristics of individual bones to determine the most likely possible matches.
“It’s hard, when you have 300 commingled bones, to figure out which bone goes with which other bone,” Pawaskar said. “(CoRA) streamlines the process of identifying the bones.”
He said matches that used to take a week can now be done in seconds.
“All the searching is pretty fast,” Pawaskar said. “It makes the life of an anthropologist that much easier.”
Brown and LeGarde said only one anthropologist at a time could use the old spreadsheet system. CoRA allows for multiple users.
“It’s very helpful for data management,” LeGarde said. “I use it almost every day, in some way.”
With a year to go and 152 Oklahoma men left to identify, the hardest work may still be ahead.
Brown said the easiest matches, using mitochondrial DNA passed down through female relatives, have nearly all been made.
About 50 of the DNA sequences are common to more than one of the missing sailors. One sequence is linked to about 25 different men.
“They are almost all of European ancestry,” Brown said. “They have a very common DNA lineage.”
That means doing additional types of DNA testing, such as finding a match through the father’s side of the family as well.
To complicate things further, the accounting agency is missing family-reference samples for 52 of the Oklahoma sailors and Marines, though detective work continues to find matches.
“We’re at the tough cases now,” LeGarde said. “The goal was to identify 80% (of the sailors), or about 315. I think we’ll be able to do that.”
Brown said that overall, the Oklahoma project has gone remarkably smoothly. Often it is difficult to extract DNA from samples that have been long buried. But 95% of the bones sampled have yielded useful DNA samples.
DNA recovery has been much tougher from unidentified bones recovered from two other battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor, the USS West Virginia and the USS California. Those remains are being processed at the accounting agency’s other main laboratory, in Hawaii.
The West Virginia project, begun in 2017, has yielded eight identifications among 35 missing crew members. The California project, which started a year later, has yet to produce any identifications from 25 missing crew.