A jumble of skulls, bones and teeth deemed unidentifiable in the years following the devastating attack are now being linked to missing sailors and Marines.
A jumble of skulls, bones and teeth deemed unidentifiable in the years following the devastating attack are now being linked to missing sailors and Marines, thanks to advances in DNA testing.
The Pentagon last year ordered the exhumation of remains belonging to 388 Americans who were killed aboard the USS Oklahoma, an enormous battleship that took multiple torpedo hits and keeled over in her Pearl Harbor berth, trapping hundreds of men inside.
The December 7, 1941 attack sank four warships in so-called Battleship Row and badly damaged another four.
Hundreds of Marines and sailors went down with their ships, others were burned beyond recognition in explosions and fires.
Under the Pentagon directive, the unidentified remains are being disinterred from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu -- where they were buried in common caskets -- and transferred to the nearby Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
A team of dental experts, technicians and anthropologists at the DPAA is working to identify the remains.
They have succeeded in 53 cases during the past year alone.
"We are making identifications almost every day," said Debra Zinni, a forensic anthropologist and laboratory manager.
Many of the bones are well-preserved despite decades underground and months or years in the water before that, which Zinni attributed to the heavy oil and fuel spills that had poured from the sinking battleships.
The leaking material "saturated into the skeletal remains and preserved them very well" by inhibiting bacteria, she said. "The DNA extraction rate is extremely high and successful."
The most recent identification announced from the Oklahoma was of Navy Fireman 1st Class Jim Johnston, 23, of Wesson, Mississippi. He was identified with a DNA analysis that matched two nephews, as well as dental comparisons.
The caskets held the remains of dozens of men, DNA testing showed. Their bones had been mixed together by well-intentioned scientists who grouped bones together by type in the past.
The ocean had already done some of the mingling: the United States wasn't able to begin salvage work on the Oklahoma until the summer after the attack, by which time the sailors' bodies had already been reduced to bones.
"The individuals decomposed in place," Zinni said. "From the beginning, they were already dealing with a very large commingled assemblage" of bones.
Only the USS Arizona suffered heavier losses than the Oklahoma. A total of 1,177 sailors and Marines on board died.
The vessel remains where she sank as a national memorial.
The Pentagon at the end of October granted approval for 34 graves associated with the USS West Virginia battleship to be disinterred and the remains identified.
Relatives and descendants of the missing have provided DNA samples in many cases to enable scientists to find genealogical matches and for remains once marked "unknown" to be finally sent home.
Personnel who are positively identified will be given burials with full military honors. Johnston will be buried Tuesday in his hometown.
"Even though it happened 75 years ago, it's still not over," DPAA spokeswoman Major Natasha Waggoner said.
"Seventy-five years later, we are still identifying the unknowns, we are still trying to resolve all these things that happened."
The DPAA's Pearl Harbor efforts are only part of the US military's elaborate and costly commitment to try to find and identify those still missing from conflicts dating back to World War II.
The Pentagon sends forensic teams to remote crash sites in the Pacific every year to look for the remains of air crews.
Last year, the remains of three US airmen who crashed in Malaysia shortly after the end of the war were sent back to the United States.
Hawaii has organized a string of events and commemorations to mark the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.
"This is kind of the last big hurrah because when we roll out five years later to the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, I think we are going to be very pressed to find any" survivors still alive, Waggoner said.
More than 400,000 American troops died during the war, of whom 73,117 service members remain unaccounted for.