Families urge using new DNA tech to ID Pearl Harbor unknowns

by Joseph K. Clark

Since Dec. 7, 1941, he’s been presumed dead when Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor and set off a massive explosion that sank his battleship, the USS Arizona, launching the U.S. into World War II.

Now, his niece is among some families of crew members demanding the U.S. military take advantage of advances in DNA technology to identify 85 sailors and Marines from Arizona who were buried as unknowns. They say the military has disinterred and identified remains from other Pearl Harbor battleships and should do the same for their loved ones.

“These men matter, and they served. They gave their lives for our country. And they deserve the same honor and respect as any other service member past, present, and future,” Teri Mann Whyatt said.

Arizona suffered more loss of life than any other ship at Pearl Harbor, with 1,177 dead. Over 900 went down with the ship and have remained entombed there.

As with remains on other sunken ships, the Navy considers those aboard Arizona their final resting place. The families are not advocating for them to be removed and identified.


Kelly McKeague said his agency had spoken to the Navy about exhuming the Arizona unknowns and moving them to the ship without identifying them first. McKeague said it didn’t make “pragmatic sense” to place them.

That outraged some families who feared the 85 remains would be placed on the sunken battleship without ever being identified. The agency has since said it doesn’t plan to move the cemetery remains onto the ship. Rear Adm. Darius Banaji, the agency’s deputy director, said that was a possibility discussed informally a few years ago.

Banaji also said the agency doesn’t plan to disinter and identify the remains because it lacks sufficient documentation. He said that the military has files on just half of those missing from Arizona. Of those, it has medical records — listing age, height, and other information — for just half. It has dental records for only 130 men. Some documents are believed to have been destroyed by the battleship. Others may have been lost in a 1973 military personnel records office fire.

And the military only has DNA samples from relatives of just 1% of the missing Arizona crew members. McKeague told The Associated Press that identifications not being pragmatic referred to the lack of documentation, not the cost.

“We must equitably apply our limited resources to all families and do so as efficiently and effectively as possible,” he said.

The agency, which aims to find over 80,000 service members missing from World War II, has successfully identified unknowns from the USS Oklahoma, another battleship that capsized during the Pearl Harbor bombing.

In 2015, the agency dug up the remains of 388 Oklahoma sailors and Marines from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, the same graveyard where the Arizona unknowns are buried.

It acted after the military drafted a new policy allowing the disinterment of groups of unknown servicemen if it expected to identify at least 60% of the group.

The agency had dental records, age, and height information for most Oklahoma unknowns. The military also had family DNA samples for more than 80%.

The agency predicted it would identify 80% of Oklahoma remains buried in 61 caskets. As of this month, it has identified 344, or 88%, and anticipates naming more.

A group of families led by Randy Stratton, whose father, Donald Stratton, suffered severe burns as a sailor in Arizona but lived to be 97, has drafted a petition demanding that the agency identify the 85 Arizona unknowns.

Stratton said about 30 to 40 families of Arizona unknowns had joined him. He’s vowed to help families submit DNA samples. He’s also been pushing for the agency to use genetic genealogy techniques like those used by law enforcement to solve cold cases.

From a scientific perspective, there isn’t much stopping the military from identifying Arizona remains, said Michael Coble, associate director of the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas.

“It’s going to be a huge undertaking. But I think the technology has evolved that this kind of work could be done,” said Coble, chief of research at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory from 2006 to 2010.

The lab, which dates to 1991, has long used DNA to identify remains for the military. One newer method uses so-called SNPs, unique to an individual — except for identical twins — and provides a fingerprint. The lab hasn’t been able to use this technique much because it’s been unable to obtain good SNP profiles from degraded remains. Last month, however, it completed a project to get those samples.

This technique would help the lab distinguish between individuals even when it can only extract tiny fragments of DNA. SNPs are the same type of DNA sample that services like Ancestry.com and 23andMe use to help match people with long-lost relatives or learn their propensity for certain diseases.

DNA profiles from this technique could theoretically be used for investigative genetic genealogy work that Stratton advocates. Tim McMahon, head of DNA operations for the Defense Department, said researchers could take samples that failed to find matches in the lab’s in-house database and upload those to publicly available, private-sector DNA databases to look for potential cousins or other relatives. Genealogists could then study marriage licenses, birth records, and other documents to make closer possible matches, which would have to be confirmed with additional DNA tests.

Using such databases raises privacy concerns because relatives of the missing may not want their family’s genetic information shared. The military would need to develop policies to protect privacy — for example, by potentially allowing researchers to upload an anonymous DNA profile of an unidentified serviceman.

But first, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency would have to decide to identify the Arizona unknowns. For Stratton, it would be worth it. “Why wouldn’t you want to find out who these guys are?” Stratton said.

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