A dredged-up skull from the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor is a puzzle that might remain unsolved.
In 2011 the stunning discovery of a skull in 35 to 40 feet of water in Southeast Loch made international news amid speculation that it might have been the remains of a Japanese aviator recovered decades after the "Day of Infamy" attack.
Navy archaeologist Jeff Fong told the Associated Press at the time that early analysis made him "75 percent sure" the skull belonged to an Imperial Japanese Navy pilot.
Newly revealed evidence does point to the skull being from a Japanese attacker but, as it turns out, not the one historians believed.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, a Hawaii-based military unit that recovered and identified missing American war dead, received the skull for analysis. It had been found during routine dredging.
The most likely candidate was Lt. Mimori Suzuki, who was piloting a Nakajima Type 97 attack bomber with two other crew members on a low-level run on Battleship Row when the plane went down in a spectacular explosion. Suzuki was decapitated.
Kahala resident Ray Emory, who was manning a .50-caliber machine gun on the nearby USS Honolulu, recalled seeing the results of the anti-aircraft fire, which may have detonated the torpedo fitted to the plane’s undercarriage.
"It went up like a Christmas tree, and the prop came off the nose and kept going through the air," Emory said in 2011. "I mean, it went down just like as fast as you’d hit your hand on a desk."
But JPAC’s successor, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, said Friday that DNA comparisons have ruled out Suzuki and another crew member in the plane numbered AII-356.
Suzuki’s crew included gunner/radioman Yoshiharu Machimoto and navigator/bombadier Tsuneki Morita.
"We just know for sure that it’s definitely not two of the people," said Maj. Natasha Waggoner, an agency spokeswoman. "We don’t know if it’s that third person. Also, you have to take into consideration there’s approximately 60 Japanese (from Dec. 7, 1941) that the Japanese government knows of that are still somewhere in Hawaii, unaccounted for."
Suzuki’s family and the family of one of the two other crew members provided DNA family reference samples — the agency won’t say which — but the third family didn’t, Waggoner said.
"Now, was (the skull) someone in Suzuki’s plane? We don’t know, because we can’t rule it out," Waggoner said. "But it could be from another plane that crashed, or it could be from one of the Japanese minisubs that sunk. We don’t know."
JPAC quietly turned over the skull to the Japanese Consulate General in Honolulu in 2013.
Past Honolulu Star-Advertiser inquiries were always met with the response that the agency was still "working on it."
Waggoner said the U.S. military doesn’t usually go any further if remains are determined to be not American, but in this case Japan asked for U.S. help.
An anthropologic analysis determined the cranium represented an Asian male who was over 20 years old, she said. Radio carbon dating indicated a mid-20th-century date of death.
"So collectively, looking at all these different lines of evidence, it suggests a plausible explanation that these remains represent a Japanese casualty from the World War II era," Waggoner said.
Japanese officials who collaborated with JPAC on the case "were satisfied" that the agency confirmed the skull belonged to a Japanese serviceman, but the government opted not to pursue other family reference samples to enable additional comparisons of the skull, Waggoner said.
If Japan were to provide additional DNA samples in the future, the agency would be able to perform a comparison with the DNA sequence from the skull, she said.
The Japanese Consulate in Honolulu referred questions about the skull to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare office in Tokyo, but no further information was provided about its disposition.
Waggoner noted that Japan still has about a million people missing from World War II.
Daniel Martinez, chief historian for the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which includes the USS Arizona Memorial, early on considered that the skull could have been from one of three Nakajima torpedo bombers — each with three crew members — that went down in the vicinity on Dec. 7, 1941.
Historians subsequently focused on Suzuki, whose headless body was reportedly recovered shortly after the attack along with the bodies of his crew.
The explosion of AII-356 was one of the most vivid Pearl Harbor incidents, and one that was "probably witnessed by several hundred individuals — not only individuals on the ships, the men that were topside, but also it was mentioned by eyewitnesses in the submarine base just directly across," Martinez said.
The torpedo planes had to fly low and slow to release the weapons, and were no more than 50 feet above the water.
Martinez said the discovery of a skull is very different from finding relics of an air crash or old projectiles, and speaks to the human side of the battle.
"We’re talking about people," Martinez said. "We’re talking about these young men from Japan who were sent here by their country."
The anger tied to the Pearl Harbor attack has subsided with the passage of time and Japan’s emergence as one the United States’ closest allies, providing an opportunity to look at the battle from both sides.
"The tragedy of Pearl Harbor is young men from the United States and Japan died that day in the outset of a tragic war," Martinez said.