Omaha Forensic Lab Works to Identify Pearl Harbor Victims

The capsized battleship USS Oklahoma is salvaged at the Pearl Harbor naval base in 1943. An Omaha forensic lab is working to identify the remains of sailors who died on board. (US Navy photo)
The capsized battleship USS Oklahoma is salvaged at the Pearl Harbor naval base in 1943. An Omaha forensic lab is working to identify the remains of sailors who died on board. (US Navy photo)

OMAHA, Neb. -- For two years after a gala grand opening in June 2013, the tables in the new $5 million forensic lab at Offutt Air Force Base lay mostly bare and empty.

Intended to give the Hawaii-based Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command a lot more space to study the bones of unidentified soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, the sprawling new lab remained underused.

That has changed. Nearly all of the laboratory's 56 tables now are filled with thousands of human bones, tagged and neatly laid out for future identification.

And following a forced reorganization of its parent command -- now called the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency -- the Offutt lab has a new director, several new forensic anthropologists and a new mission identifying World War II remains from Pearl Harbor and the European theater.

"We have a better idea where we're going," said Franklin Damann, director of the Offutt laboratory.

Damann, from Louisiana, worked for the accounting command in Hawaii during the 2000s.

He left in 2007 to become curator of anatomical collections at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. He missed the work of reuniting families with the remains of their lost loved ones.

"I always thought if they opened a facility on the mainland, I'd go back," Damann said. "Now, I'm here."

The Omaha World-Herald reports that the accounting command had been dogged by criticism for its slow pace of identifications and excessive bureaucracy, among other problems. The new agency is under pressure from Congress to boost identifications to 200 a year. More than 80,000 people are still missing from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Last year the agency fell short, tallying 91 IDs, said Heather Harris, a deputy director. According to a 2013 report by the Government Accountability Office, the agency had averaged 72 per year over the previous decade.

Most of the tables at the Offutt lab now are filled with the oil-soaked bones of crewmen from the Navy battleship USS Oklahoma, which was torpedoed at its berth on Dec. 7, 1941 during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. When it sank, 429 people were killed, most trapped below decks when the ship rolled on its side.

During grisly salvage operations in 1943, only 35 sets of remains were identified; the rest were buried as unknowns in two Honolulu cemeteries.

After the war, the military disinterred the remains in an attempt to identify them. But the remains were hopelessly intermingled, so they were reburied in 46 grave sites at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

With the arrival of DNA technology in the 1990s, USS Oklahoma survivors and families began lobbying for the graves to be reopened. The Navy resisted those efforts for years, arguing to let the remains rest in peace.

But in 2015, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work changed a long-standing Pentagon policy restricting the reopening of graves and gave permission for the Oklahoma remains to be disinterred. He cleared the way for "unknowns" in other military cemeteries to be identified, too.

"This is a sea change," Harris said. "They are developing a comprehensive plan to disinter, assess and hopefully identify all our unknowns."

The large Offutt lab was seen as the ideal place to examine the Oklahoma remains.

Between June and November, 61 caskets were removed from the graves in Hawaii and taken to the agency's Honolulu lab, where skulls are being examined by dental experts.

"We have exhumed everything the historical record tells us is there," Damann said.

Carrie Brown, a forensic anthropologist, is leading a team of graduate and postgraduate fellows who are examining and tagging all of the remains.

So far, Damann said, Brown's team has tagged 4,000 bones. He expects the total to reach 10,000 when the inventory is complete next summer. By then the dental experts in Hawaii will have finished with the skulls, which will be flown to Offutt.

DNA samples will be taken from many of the bones, but not all of them. Damann said. Certain types of bones yield useful DNA more easily than others.

Scientists will compare the DNA gathered with samples gathered from surviving relatives of Oklahoma crewmen. Skeletons will be reassembled as completely as possible.

The DNA analysis is complicated because the bones can't be matched to firsthand DNA samples from the victims. Many of the relatives who gave samples are several generations removed from the Oklahoma sailors and Marines, making a match more difficult.

"The possibility of identifying every single bone is not high," Brown said.

The accounting agency has released the names of five men identified from the skulls in Hawaii. The agency expects the process to take up to five years.

Though most of Offutt's space is now dedicated to the USS Oklahoma bones, the lab also is where remains found in the European theater of World War II are being sent for identification.

Damann said nine European cases currently are being examined. Some are remains excavated from air crash sites, while others were taken from graves of "unknown" soldiers buried in U.S. military cemeteries.

These cases, he said, are quicker to solve than large groups of commingled remains such as the USS Oklahoma crew.

"Within 10 weeks we can certainly prepare an anthropological report," Damann said.

The reorganized agency has become more open, but many of its critics remain skeptical that it has really changed.

"It's the same old people," said Ted Darcy, director of WFI Research Group, which studies World War II battles. "They've just changed the name."

Darcy said he has butted heads with the POW/MIA agencies since 1991, researching graves or crash sites and developing what he says are solid cases for identifying remains.

He said he turned in four case files involving World War II Marines four years ago. He has gotten no response.

"If they identify those four, we're going to turn in 100 or so more," Darcy said.

Damann and Harris both predict that identifications will speed up thanks to new rules that allow the agency to open graves of "unknowns," sort commingled remains like the Oklahoma crew, and to work with private groups that excavate burial and crash sites overseas.

"After the Oklahoma, there will be more," Damann said.

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