The Slatest

U.S. Will Disinter, Identify Remains of Sailors and Marines Killed Aboard USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor

In this photograph taken during the bombardment of Pearl Harbor, the USS Oklahoma is toward the top of the picture in the rightmost pair of ships.

Official U.S. Navy photograph/U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation/Handout/Reuters

Reversing previous policy, the Department of Defense will exhume the unidentified remains of sailors and Marines from the battleship USS Oklahoma who were killed during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. The remains are buried en masse at the National Memorial Cemetary of the Pacific in Honolulu; 429 sailors and Marines aboard the Oklahoma were killed, and the remains of only 35 individuals could be identified at the time. The DOD’s memo on the subject says that “most” of the remaining 388 crew members will likely be identified using medical and dental records and DNA from family members.

From the memo by Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work:

In addition to my decision to disinter the unknowns associated with Oklahoma, I am establishing a broader DoD disinterment policy that applies to all unidentified human remains from the NMCP and other permanent U.S. military cemeteries from which we conduct disinterment to effect identifications. Effective immediately, the following thresholds must be met in order for the Department to proceed with disinterment. For cases of commingled remains, research must indicate that at least 60 percent of the Service members associated with the group can be individually identified. For individual unknowns, there must be at least 50 percent likelihood to make an identification before disinterring the remains.

The USS Oklahoma was launched in 1914; it capsized and sank just minutes after the attack on Pearl Harbor began.

National Archives/

The ship was salvaged and after it had been stripped of its superstructure, tugboats set out to haul what remained to San Francisco. But on May 17, 1947, the Oklahoma came loose from its towing cables and sank in the Pacific. “Most theories are that the patchwork on the torpedo holes from nearly six years earlier gave way,” wrote the Oklahoman in 1991. “Another, held by many of the men who served on the Oklahoma during its naval career, was that the ship simply preferred to die at sea.”