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Pentagon To Exhume Remains Of Sailors From USS Oklahoma

A gravestone identifying the resting place of seven unknowns from the USS Oklahoma is shown at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. The Pentagon says it will disinter and try to identify the remains of up to 388 unaccounted for sailors and Marines killed when the ship capsized in the 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The Pentagon says it will exhume the remains of 388 sailors and Marines who died on Dec. 7, 1941, in the capsizing of the USS Oklahoma during the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

They are all currently buried as unknowns at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. In all, 429 sailors and Marines perished aboard the Oklahoma; 35 were identified in the years after the attack. The 388 personnel who remained unidentified were buried in 61 caskets at 45 grave sites at the memorial, locally dubbed the "Punchbowl."

As recently as last year, the Navy told families of those aboard the ship that it opposed the exhumation, noting "a full DNA testing and accounting could take many years and likely leave many of the missing still unaccounted for." But on Tuesday, the Pentagon reversed course.

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, in a memorandum, said: "Recent advances in forensic science and technology, as well as family member assistance in providing genealogical information, have now made it possible to make individual identifications for many Service members long-buried in graves marked 'unknown.' "

The memorandum states that the Defense Department "has contacted families, collected and analyzed DNA from 84 percent of applicable USS Oklahoma family members, and has collected 90 percent of antemortem medical and dental records from the ship's crew." Analysis of the evidence suggests that most of the Oklahoma's crew members could be identified if the 61 caskets were disinterred — a process, the memo said, that should be completed within five years.

More broadly, Work established a broader policy that applies to all unidentified human remains from permanent U.S. military cemeteries from which remains are exhumed for identification. For commingled remains, there must be a 60 percent chance of identification; for individuals, 50 percent.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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