Nebraska lab working to ID Pearl Harbor remains

Posted at 12:42 PM, Dec 08, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-08 13:42:29-05

Inside a stark white lab housed in an old WWII bomber assembly plant at Offutt Air Force Base, a team is working to identify the remains from the hundreds of sailors who were aboard the USS Oklahoma the morning of the Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack.

Seventy four years ago Monday, 17 sailors from Nebraska and western Iowa died during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Their remains are among the up to 388 unidentified, who are buried in graves at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii. They were simply marked "unknown." 

In 2003, one casket was exhumed and the remains of five Oklahoma sailors identified, but it was really this spring when the effort took off. 

In April, the Pentagon decided to exhume the remains of the unknowns. From there, the work began in an $85-million lab at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Honolulu, Hawaii. This summer, remains started arriving at Offutt.

"Oklahoma is solvable," said Carrie Brown, a forensic anthropologist with Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).

Solvable, but slow and complex. The lab in Nebraska is working with the Hawaii lab. The skulls and dental remains are being examined at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. 

Some of analysis is also gathered at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. 

We're not allowed inside the lab, but through glass windows you can see table after table (there's more than 40 we're told) of dark rust-colored or gray bones. 

Each one is individually labeled and cataloged with either a blue or beige tag. Every item is logged, measured, and laid out. 

The anthropologists have database, similar to a Dewey Decimal System, to keep track of every piece and material with each bundle. The beige tagged remains will get cut to be sent out for DNA ID samples to add to a database.

The cataloging process is long and tedious, but paramount to the process.

The Oklahoma capsized after being hit by torpedoes during the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack, killing 429 sailors and Marines that day. 

Thirty five were identified in the years immediately after. Hundreds were buried as unknowns at two cemeteries in Hawaii. In 1950, they were reburied as unknowns at Punchbowl, in what the anthropologists refer to as bundles.

"When we look further with DNA and anthropology, we realize there's actually a lot of commingling happening. To use the 2003 casket as an example, the casket we took out in 2003, that one had five bundles, but had 95 different mitochondrial DNA sequences. "

That doesn't mean that there's 95 different people, it just means that the labs have to use a variety of information to identify. Everything from dog tags to old x-rays and dental records. Officials expect in five years to identify 80 percent of the remains. The main thing, Brown says, is taking the time to dot their i's and cross their t's.

"It's a very complex process," she said, "But when thinking about the families, and doing the work for the families, you want to do it right for the families."