Watch the USS Oklahoma Pearl Harbor remembrance ceremony at the top of this article.
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A sailor from Omaha who died aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 — 77 years ago today — has been identified through the efforts of Defense Department anthropologists working in a laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base.
The identification of George Allen Thompson, 20, was announced Wednesday in a press release from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Thompson’s was the latest of more than 180 identifications so far from the USS Oklahoma. Altogether, 429 sailors and Marines on board the ship were killed, but only 35 were identified in the immediate aftermath of the surprise attack on the Navy’s Pacific battleship fleet. The attack brought the United States into World War II.
The Oklahoma was struck by as many as eight torpedoes in the first minutes of the attack and rolled over at its pier. While about 1,000 men survived, nearly 400 were trapped below decks. A few were rescued in the hours after the battleship capsized, but many drowned.
The bodies of 388 couldn’t be recovered until the ship was salvaged in 1942 and 1943. Most of their oil-stained bones were buried in two local cemeteries. In the late 1940s, they were dug up and an effort was made to identify bodies.
But the bones, hopelessly mixed up, were placed in several dozen caskets and buried in 46 graves marked “Unknown” at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu until 2015.
Since then, the Offutt-based anthropologists led by Dr. Carrie Brown, director of the USS Oklahoma Project, have separated, labeled, classified and logged nearly 13,000 human bones from about 400 people. They have sent off about 5,000 DNA samples to a Defense Department laboratory in Delaware.
As of this week, the agency has identified 188 sailors and Marines from the Oklahoma who were previously unidentified. Eighty-four of them have come since last year’s Pearl Harbor Day observance.
Slowly, the remains are being sent for reburial in places like Lidderdale, Iowa; Ontonagon, Michigan; Portage, Pennsylvania; and Council Bluffs. The World-Herald recently wrote about the burial of Bert McKeeman in Council Bluffs.
Funerals are pending for several Nebraska sailors from the USS Oklahoma who have been identified but not yet buried. They include: Joseph Maule, 18, of Bloomfield; Grant C. Cook Jr., 20, of Cozad; and Gerald Clayton, 21, of Central City.
Thompson, identified this week, had attended what is now known as Monroe Middle School and also lived at Boys Town, according to a March 3, 1942, article in The World-Herald. He graduated from high school in Washington state and enlisted in January 1941 at Bremerton, a longtime Navy hub on Puget Sound.
His mother, Esther Thompson, worked as a telephone operator at the Grain Exchange in South Omaha. A story in November 1942 reported that she had moved to California.
She told The World-Herald that she received a purse from George as a Christmas present that he had purchased and mailed to her before the attack.
At least two of the men who died at Pearl Harbor are being buried Friday.
Earlier this year, the newly identified remains of Navy Seaman 1st Class Leon Arickx were buried on a brilliant summer day at a small cemetery amid the cornfields of northern Iowa.
Hundreds gathered in July for Arickx’s graveside service at Sacred Heart Cemetery outside Osage, in a farming region near the Minnesota line where Arickx grew up. Among them was his niece, Janice Schonrock, who was a baby when Arickx died.
“My family talked about him all that time,” said Schonrock, 77. “I felt I knew him because everyone talked about him.”
Although they didn’t have Arickx’s remains, his family held a memorial service and placed a grave marker at Sacred Heart Cemetery in 1942. When his remains were finally returned, they were buried nearby.
Schonrock said her family appreciates the work it took to identify her uncle, and she believes it’s essential to identify as many service members as possible.
“I think we need to honor these people who give their lives to our country and bring them back to their home country where they can be close to family who can honor them,” she said. “No one should be left behind.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press.