West Loch disaster's unknown soldiers - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

West Loch disaster's unknown soldiers

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Deloris Guttman Deloris Guttman
Ray Emory Ray Emory
State Sen. Will Espero State Sen. Will Espero
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

Heading into the Memorial Day weekend, there's a big push to identify the remains of unknown soldiers killed during World War II's West Loch disaster.

More than 163 sailors --- most of them African American -- died in the May 1944 tragedy, which was caused by a mortar round that accidentally detonated on a ship.

The military kept those deaths a secret until the 1960s when they were finally declassified.  But families still don't know whether their relatives were among the victims in the accident.

"It makes me feel very sad. I'm full of emotions. I don't know how in the 21st Century this history is still not known," said Deloris Guttman, historian with African American Diversity Cultural Center.

"Nobody knows what happened. The family members have only been told they are missing."

Guttman is pushing for the military to find all of the victims' remains and give them a proper burial. Thirty-nine of those sailors are buried in unknown soldiers' graves at Punchbowl Cemetery.

Guttman hopes Punchbowl officials can work with the Joint POW/MIA command to use DNA and other information to identify those 39 remains.

The Pentagon has said that it is reviewing the records of thousands of unknown soldiers buried at Punchbowl and other U.S. cemeteries. But many say the military is not moving fast enough.

Ray Emory, president emeritus of the National Chief Petty Officer's Association, has been the prime mover behind efforts to identify remains of World War II unknown soldiers buried at Punchbowl.

He believes the military has both the money and the technology to identify the remains but refuses to do so.

"It frustrates me. I'm just sitting back waiting for them to do something. They got all the records. Just do it," the 93-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor said.

State Sen. Will Espero, D-Waipahu, believes the problem will only be solved by political pressure and pressure from families of missing soldiers.

"At this stage, we certainly need to put pressure on the Department of Defense to consider something that can be done on a mass scale," Espero said.

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