After 2 years, 100 USS Oklahoma 'unknowns' have been identified

( Image: DIVDS )
( Image: DIVDS )

PUNCHBOWL (HawaiiNewsNow) - Up until two years ago, there were 41 grave sites at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl that held hundreds of unidentified remains from sailors who died aboard the USS Oklahoma.

The battleship sank after being hit by torpedoes during Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.

"These individuals signed a piece of paper and basically gave their lives for our country. It's our job to return them to their families," forensic anthropologist Carrie Brown said.

Her team at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha has successfully identified 100 of the sailors.

Brown calls it a "milestone" given the fact that 388 sets of remains were co-mingled in 62 different caskets. One contained nearly 100 different sets of remains that had to be separated before they could be studied.

"The number of bones that we have inventoried are around 13,000 skeletal elements," Brown said.

The scientists are using the sailors' dental records and DNA from their relatives to make identifications. Families are then notified.

"On behalf of the veterans who work here at Punchbowl, it's really an honor to be able to bring closure to the family members," Punchbowl spokesman Gene Maestas said.

Vernon Luke was one of the first Oklahoma casualties to be positively identified. Last year his remains were reburied at Punchbowl.

In July, USS Oklahoma sailor Paul Smith Raimond's remains were also repatriated in the cemetery. Nine of the ship's crewmen are now buried in marked graves there.

"The Navy is just doing a great job to make these type of things happen for the families. We appreciate them," Luke's nephew Wayne Starkweather said after his uncle's ceremony.

Brown believes many more sailors from the Oklahoma will be identified in the coming months.

"We currently have about 85 percent of the individuals in the Oklahoma represented with some form of DNA," she said.

That means most of the ship's sailors, who for decades shared graves marked "unknown," will finally have their own resting places.

Copyright 2017 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.