Technology helps US identify Pearl Harbor dead

Among science’s more amazing advances is its ability to identify the long dead.

On Monday, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency said in a statement that the remains of Navy Fireman 3rd Class Willard Lawson, killed when the USS Oklahoma was sunk by Japanese torpedoes on Dec. 7, 1941, had been identified.

Lawson will be buried April 27 in Madison, Ind., according to the Defense Department.

Last week the Defense Department announced that military officials had identified the remains of 37-year-old Seaman 1st Class Hale McKissack of Talpa, Texas, and 26-year-old Ensign Charles M. Stern Jr. of Albany, N.Y., both of whom were also Oklahoma crew members. McKissack is scheduled to be buried May 4, in nearby Winters, Texas, while Stern will be buried outside Albany sometime this summer.

Seventy-eight years after the Oklahoma was capsized in Pearl Harbor (aftermath shown in image above), taking the lives of 415 sailors and 15 Marines, identification of its dead is proceeding at relatively dizzying pace.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack through 2003 only 35 of the 429 members of the Oklahoma’s crew who died on Dec. 7 were known. But since 2015 more than 200 Oklahoma crew members have been identified, thanks to technology and a push by officials to account for as many members of the ship’s crew as possible.

USS Oklahoma

The Oklahoma’s story isn’t as well known as that of the USS Arizona, which remains at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, where hundreds of its crew were entombed following its destruction on Dec. 7. The site is marked by the famed USS Arizona Memorial.

The Oklahoma was among the first ships to be hit by Japanese torpedo bombers, which quickly struck the Nevada-class battleship with three torpedoes in the opening moments of the attack. As the Oklahoma began to capsize, she was struck by two more torpedoes and within 12 minutes had rolled over.

Following the disaster of Dec. 7, 1941, the Oklahoma lay capsized in Pearl Harbor for 18 months before being righted. Remains of Oklahoma crew continued to be collected through June 1944, with the Navy interring the dead in the Halawa and Nu’uanu cemeteries in Hawaii.

The remains were disinterred by the American Graves Registration Service from the two cemeteries in September 1947, and transferred to the Central Identification Laboratory at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. Fewer than 10 percent of the dead had been identified.

The 394 unknowns were buried in plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu.

In 2015, as part of the USS Oklahoma Project, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, through a partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs, exhumed all of the unknown remains from the Oklahoma, and began the lengthy identification process.

“It is remarkable for us to reach the 200th identification,” said Sean Patterson, Armed Forces Medical Examiner System’s DNA Operations Quality Management Section DNA Analyst. “We’ve identified so many people in a short amount of time using new technology such as the next-generation sequencing as well as with conventional technology.”

Since the start of 2019, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has announced the identities of 35 American service personnel, dead from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. These include 15 from the USS Oklahoma and one from the USS West Virginia, also sunk on Dec. 7 at Pearl Harbor.

In addition, there are likely others that have been identified since the start of the year, but next of kin have not been located as yet.

(Top: USS Oklahoma, capsized in the Pearl Harbor, following the Dec. 7, 1941, attack by Japan. Men can be seen atop the ship’s hull and one of her propellers, or screws, can be seen in the foreground. The USS Maryland is next to the Oklahoma.)

One of last Doolittle Raiders dies at age 96

Thomas Griffin Doolittle Raider

One of the last living Doolittle Raiders died this week in northern Kentucky, less than two months before what will be final reunion of the famed group.

Maj. Thomas C. “Tom” Griffin served as a navigator on one of the 16 B-25 Mitchell bombers that attacked mainland Japan on April 18, 1942, in a daring raid that lifted the spirits of an American nation still demoralized from Pearl Harbor and numerous other Japanese victories.

With Griffin’s death there are just four surviving Raiders: Lt. Col. Richard Cole, of Comfort, Texas; Lt. Col. Robert Hite of Nashville, Tenn.; Lt. Col. Edward Saylor of Puyallup, Wash.; and Master Sgt. David Thatcher of Missoula, Mont.

The last surviving Raider pilot, Bill Bower, died in early 2011.

Griffin, 96, died Tuesday in a veterans nursing home in northern Kentucky.

He was among 80 men who took part in the hazardous mission. The attack on Tokyo, launched from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet 650 miles off the coast of Japan, shocked the Japanese and gave American morale a needed boost.

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Remembering the great state of Jefferson

State of Jefferson

Secession talk is all the rage of late, with disaffected Americans from Alabama to Alaska saying it’s time to break away and form their own independent enclaves.

Most Americans remember what happened the last time secession was attempted on a major scale. While some argue the matter has never been satisfactorily resolved judicially, others point out that it was pretty clearly settled by the events of 1861-65.

Yet, despite the defeat of the Confederacy nearly 150 years ago and the ensuing belief in the inviolability of the Union, periodic secession movements have continued to crop up over the past century and a half.

Most, however, have focused on taking a piece of an existing state and breaking away to form a new state, such as West Virginia did in 1863.

Massachusetts, New York, Arizona and California are among states in recent years with small but vocal separatist elements, factions interested in snapping off parts of their respective states to form new independent entities.

In fact, California has had more than 200 such proposals since it became a state in 1851, with the first coming only a year after it was admitted to the Union, when northern Californians presented a bill to California’s State Legislature with the goal of creating the State of Shasta by combining areas of northern California and southern Oregon, according to the Mt. Shasta (Calif.) Herald.

One of the more interesting concepts for a new state involved the same region, just before World War II.

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Pearl Harbor conspiracists simplify the past

As long as I’ve been reading about World War II – some 35-plus years for those of you scoring at home – there’s been a faint but continuous drumbeat of revisionists who claim President Franklin Roosevelt not only knew the Japanese planned to attack Pearl Harbor, but that he welcomed the surprise assault as a way to get the US public to back our entry into the conflict on the Allied side. 

FDR needed a jolt like Pearl Harbor, which occurred 70 years ago next week, to overcome America’s then-strong trend toward isolationism, it’s argued, and he was willing to sacrifice more than 2,400 American lives and a good bit of the US Navy on that fateful day to do so.

To be certain, hindsight has proven that there were intelligence warnings of an impending attack on Hawaii, and the decidedly overall unprepared nature of Pearl Harbor can’t help but raise eyebrows decades after the event. 

But, as the Coyote Blog argues, this approach to history is not only simplistic, it fails to present an accurate picture of the situation at the time.

This is a fun but generally foolish game. The same game was played after 9/11, pointing to a few scraps of intelligence that were ‘ignored.’ But the problem in intelligence isn’t always lack of information, but too much information. In late 1941, the US government was getting warnings from everywhere about just about everything. It is easy as a historian to pick out four or five warnings and say they were stupidly (or purposely) ignored, but this fails to address the real point – that those warnings were accompanied by a thousand false or misleading ones at the same time. The entire Pacific theater had already had a whole series of alerts in the months leading up to Dec 7, one false alarm after another. It is Monday morning quarterbacking that strips the intelligence problem of its context. To prove that something unusual happened, one would have to show that these warnings were processed or prioritized in a manner that was unusual for the time.

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Skull found in Pearl Harbor may be Japanese

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.

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USS Arizona survivor dies in Florida at 91

One of the few remaining survivors from the USS Arizona, sunk on Dec. 7, 1941, with the loss of nearly 1,200 lives, died late last week at age 91.

Vernon Olsen, then just 21 years old, scrambled to his battle station atop the after mast of the Arizona that fateful Sunday morning nearly 70 years ago when Japanese planes struck.

Years later, he would tell of seeing a Japanese bomber coming  in between the ship’s masts to drop a bomb while Olsen, manning a 50-caliber machine gun, waited helplessly for ammunition.

The plane was so close that Olsen could see the Japanese pilot grinning, he said in 1998 interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. When the bomb exploded, it all but obliterated the ship.

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