Eighty Years After Pearl Harbor, New DNA Tech Helps Identify Victims of the Attack

Researchers say they have now identified over 90 percent of the remains of those killed aboard the USS Oklahoma

USS Oklahoma in flames during the attack on Pearl Harbor
Of a total crew of 864 men, 429 were killed on the USS Oklahoma, sunk at Pearl Harbor 80 years ago. New DNA testing has allowed scientists to identify 90 percent of the remains in the last few years. National Archives via Wikimedia Commons

U.S. Navy Seaman First Class Buford H. Dyer was just 19 years old when he was killed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Now, with the help of new DNA analysis, his remains can be properly interred at his home in Ohio with full honors, reports Alan Ashworth of the Akron Beacon Journal.

Dyer was one of 429 crewmen who lost their lives when the battleship USS Oklahoma was torpedoed by Japanese bombers. He and his fellow sailors would be placed in unmarked mass graves in 1943, where they would remain for almost 80 years, with no way to identify them and return them to their families.

That is until researchers a program created in 2015 by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, (DPAA) sought to rectify that problem. Over the past six years, the team had worked diligently to identify the remains of 361 crewmen and give them the proper recognition they deserve, reports Bryan Bender of Politico.

“It was a milestone accomplishment for the laboratory,” John Byrd, director of DPAA’s Central Identification Laboratory, tells Politico. “We’ve identified over 90 percent of these individuals.”

DPAA staff, in collaboration with the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, helped identify many of the service members through DNA sampling of relatives—a painstaking process given the condition of the remains and the difficulty of telling them apart.

Carrie LeGarde, USS Oklahoma Project lead, with Ben Soria, evidence coordinator, at an honorable carry ceremony in Hawaii. Staff Sgt. Michael O’Neal/U.S. Army

Initial efforts began in 2003, when Ray Emory, a Pearl Harbor survivor, convinced the military to exhume a grave believed to contain the remains of five sailors, so that new forensic techniques could be used for identification, reports Politico. When that casket was opened, military investigators found the entangled DNA of 94 different men.

“That was when we really knew how commingled they would be and that if we wanted to do more identification, we would really need all of the remains from the Oklahoma,” Carrie LeGarde, lead anthropologist for the project, tells Politico.

In September 1947, 429 sailors and Marines were disinterred by the American Graves Registration Service in hopes of being able to identify some of them.

Military staff used dental records and dog tags to identify 35 of the men, reports Michael E. Ruane of the Washington Post. Another six were identified in the early 2000s through DNA. In 2015, DPAA disinterred what turned out to be 388 bodies to begin another round of testing.

Typically, mitochondrial DNA from the maternal line is used for identification, however, that proved difficult since many of the men shared similar ancestral backgrounds, reports Politico. But new discoveries in DNA testing now allow DPAA staffers to cross-check genetic material from the paternal side.

“If we didn't have that DNA, we wouldn't be able to do what we have done,” LeGarde tells Politico.

Scientists also identified six sets of siblings who died on the USS Oklahoma, including a set of twins, by using a combination of dental records, physical analysis of remains, and mitochondrial DNA to confirm the identifications.

“The twins in particular were challenging because they have the same DNA, they’re basically the same height and age,” LeGarde tells Politico. In that instance, dental records proved pivotal in cracking the case. “That was the only way we were able to individually identify them, he says.

Per the Washington Post, DPAA is shutting down the project. The remaining unidentified 33 crew members will be reinterred at the “Punchbowl”—the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii—on the 80th anniversary of the attack.

Though the work has ended for now, the scientists on the project have not given up hope that the identities of the last 33 men will eventually be known—perhaps through future breakthroughs in DNA technology.

“All the families that we were able to give these answers to,” LeGarde tells the Washington Post. “It’s pretty emotional.”

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