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Pentagon orders disinterment of unknown Punchbowl remains

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Nearly 400 crew members of the USS Oklahoma are buried at Punchbowl cemetery as “Unknowns.” A decision on whether to exhume and identify the bodies is expected within two weeks.

The Pentagon announced Tuesday it will take the unprecedented step later this year of exhuming the remains of up to 388 sailors and Marines from the USS Oklahoma buried as "unknowns" at Punchbowl cemetery following the Dec. 7, 1941, attacks on Pearl Harbor.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work approved the disinterment, and also established a broader policy that defines threshold criteria for disinterment of additional unknowns.

Bob Valley of Escanaba, Mich., said he received a call from the Navy Casualty Office in Millington, Tenn. informing him of the Oklahoma decision.

His 19-year-old brother, Lowell, was a fireman down in the boiler room on the port side, which took the brunt of Japanese torpedoes. Eventually, the big ship rolled over, trapping crew members inside.

"I can hardly talk," said the 82-year-old Valley after hearing the news of the disinterment plan. "Families want some kind of closure."

His mother and father received one telegram right before Christmas of 1941 saying their son was missing, Valley said.

"And then the next telegram they got was on my birthday, Feb. 20, 1942, saying that he had lost his life," Valley said. "And that’s all they ever got. They never got any information about Punchbowl cemetery. They never heard of a Punchbowl cemetery."

His parents "had congressmen working on it trying to get some information. They couldn’t get anything," Valley said.

"It was pretty hard on them. In fact, they didn’t want to give up, and would think he would pop up someplace," Valley said. "They’d see a picture in the paper and say, ‘Oh, that looks like Lowell.’ "

Valley said he wants to "bring him home."

"I’ve got a cemetery plot — the family lot in my home town, and we’ve got a marker there, a government marker for him," he said. "That’s where he would go."

The new Pentagon disinterment policy applies to all unidentified remains from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, the formal name of Punchbowl, and other permanent American military cemeteries.

The policy does not extend to those sailors and Marines lost at sea or to remains entombed in U.S. Navy vessels serving as national memorials such as the USS Arizona Memorial.

"The secretary of defense and I will work tirelessly to ensure your loved one’s remains will be recovered, identified, and returned to you as expeditiously as possible, and we will do so with dignity, respect and care," Work said in a release. "While not all families will receive an individual identification, we will strive to provide resolution to as many families as possible."

The new threshold criteria for disinterment includes research, family reference samples to compare DNA, obtaining medical and dental records of the missing service members, and having the scientific ability and capacity to identify the remains in a timely manner.

To disinter cases of commingled remains, the department must estimate the ability to identify at least 60 percent of the individuals associated with a group. A likelihood of at least 50 percent identification must be attained for individual unknowns.

"The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency is prepared to begin this solemn undertaking in concert with ongoing worldwide recovery missions. Personally, I am most privileged to be part of this honorable mission, and I very much appreciate the efforts of many people who saw this revised disinterment policy come to fruition," said Rear Adm. Mike Franken, DPAA acting director.

Upon disinterment, the Oklahoma remains will be transferred to the DPAA laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam for examination, the Pentagon said. Analysis of all available evidence indicates that most USS Oklahoma crew members can be identified.

A total of 429 USS Oklahoma sailors and Marines were killed in the Dec. 7, 1941, attacks.

In the years immediately following the attacks, 35 crew members were positively identified and buried, the Pentagon said.

From June 1942 to May 1944, during salvage operations, the remaining service members’ remains were removed from the ship and initially interred as unknowns in Nuuanu and Halawa cemeteries.

In 1947 all remains in those cemeteries were disinterred for attempted identification. Twenty-seven unknowns from the USS Oklahoma were proposed for identification based on dental comparisons, but all proposed identifications were disapproved.

By 1950, all unidentified remains associated with the ship were re-interred as unknowns at Punchbowl.

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