Early indications are that a skull found while dredging Pearl Harbor this spring could well be that of a Japanese aviator killed during the historic attack on Dec. 7, 1941.
An excavation crew dredging the harbor recently made discovery. Archaeologist Jeff Fong of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific said forensic scientists are conducting tests on the skull, adding that early analysis has made him “75 percent sure” that the skull belongs to a Japanese pilot.
Fifty-five Japanese airmen were killed and 29 of their aircraft were shot down in early-morning surprise attack. By comparison, some 2,400 US service members died in the raid, which brought the US into World War II.
No Japanese remains have been found at Pearl Harbor since World War II.
Fong did not provide specifics about what archaeologists have learned about the skull, but said it was not from one of Hawaii’s ancient burial sites and has been determined not be from a Native Hawaiian, according to The Associated Press.
Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific has also contacted local police and ruled out the possibility that it’s from an active missing person case, said Denise Emsley, public affairs officer for the unit.
The items found with the skull provided some clues: forks, scraps of metal and a Coca-Cola bottle Fong said researchers have determined was from the 1940s.
The skull remains intact despite being dug up with giant cranes and shovels. It was April 1 when items plucked from the water during the overnight dredging were laid to dry.
When it was determined a skull was among the dredged items, contractors were ordered to stop the work, Emsley said. “We definitely wanted it to be handled correctly,” she said.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command on Oahu, charged with identifying Americans who were killed in action but were never brought home, has been asked to determine who the skull belongs to.
The skull was turned over to the command’s lab for tests that will include examining dental records and DNA, said John Byrd, the lab’s director and a forensic anthropologist.
“We’re working on the case but the case is just in the early stages of analysis,” he said. “We’re not going to know much more about it for a while yet.
“At this point it’s just a hypothesis, it’s not a conclusion,” Byrd said. “It might be very interesting or it could be very mundane.”
It’s rare to find remains in Hawaii, said Kohei Niitsu, an official at Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in Tokyo. “The government usually sends a team to determine if the remains are indeed Japanese, and if this is confirmed, they are brought back to Japan,” Niitsu said.
Daniel Martinez, the National Park Service’s chief historian for Pearl Harbor, said experts on Pearl Harbor know enough about the specific location where Japanese planes went down in the attack that they might be able to match the skull with a crew member, according to The Associated Press report.
“They landed in a variety places throughout Pearl Harbor and the island of Oahu,” Martinez said. “In the area of Pearl Harbor, we know what plane was shot down and who was in the crew.”
Martinez said that beyond the historical significance of the finding, it is a reminder of a life lost.
“I think that anytime you’re able to reclaim a casualty and perhaps even identify it, regardless of what country, it may bring closure to a family,” he said.
(Above: Japanese planes warming up on the flight deck of the Hiryu before they take to attack Pearl Harbor.)