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How DNA Solved One of the Final Mysteries of Pearl Harbor


SPRING VALLEY, Calif. — On Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, Mess Attendant 2nd Class Jesus Garcia, stationed aboard the USS Oklahoma, was getting ready to go to mass.

Simply earlier than 8 a.m., Japanese dive bombers launched their shock assault on Pearl Harbor and the battleship, crippled by torpedoes, started to capsize. Some crew members jumped right into a sea of burning oil to flee or crawled throughout mooring traces to security.

In the ensuing hours, rescuers freed others trapped inside by drilling by the hull and hatches. However roughly half the crew of 864 males had been entombed, some of the first American casualties of World Conflict II. Amongst them was Garcia, 21, who had joined the Navy on the U.S. territory of Guam.

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It took nearly 80 years, however on Oct. 6, Garcia accomplished his journey.


The mourners lining the pews of Santa Sophia Catholic Church, donning conventional flowered shirts and attire of Garcia’s native Guam and clutching handmade bracelets of purple, white and blue beads, by no means knew the fresh-faced sailor in the solely grainy picture the Navy might discover of him. However that they had heard the story of the day he was misplaced.

“My Uncle David and Jesus had been each stationed in Hawaii at the identical time,” their nephew Sonny Garcia, 61, recalled in his eulogy. “David was on his method to decide up Jesus that Sunday morning to go to church.”

“And everyone knows what occurred: the chaos, the yelling, and the bombs,” he mentioned. “He’s now right here with us at this mass.”

How the stays of Jesus Garcia made their circuitous method to a burial with full army honors this fall at Fort Rosecrans Nationwide Cemetery in San Diego is a story of ache and loss acquainted to tens of 1000’s of army households whose kinfolk died in faraway battles of the final world warfare however by no means acquired a correct homecoming.


However it is usually an element of a groundbreaking scientific effort by the Pentagon that has expanded the army’s capability to lastly determine wartime casualties from generations in the past whereas writing a closing chapter in the historical past of the “date which will live in infamy.”

The USS Oklahoma Undertaking, because it was formally identified, was initially thought-about such a protracted shot that it nearly didn’t occur. Even after the approval to maneuver forward was granted, investigators confronted obstacles that compelled them to pursue pathbreaking strategies for separating, matching and figuring out the commingled stays of males misplaced in such circumstances that it was not thought attainable.

In the end, investigators had been capable of determine 361 of the 394 crew members.

“It was a milestone accomplishment for the laboratory. We’ve recognized over 90 p.c of these people,” mentioned John Byrd, director of the Protection POW/MIA Accounting Company’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, which labored with a sister lab in Omaha, Neb., and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Dover, Del.

The lengthy overdue homecoming of these younger males takes place at a fractious time for America. In small methods, the funerals which have taken place in current weeks throughout the nation — from small cities like New London, Wisc., and Cleveland, Kan.; to the suburbs of better Los Angeles — have restored a way of widespread goal to communities in the midst of raging political fights over disputed elections, racially charged court docket circumstances and even the correct method to finish the nation’s longest warfare.

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These moments of unity are fleeting, like on a Friday night time in early October when Jesus Garcia’s stays arrived at the San Diego airport in the cargo maintain of a passenger airplane.


“I felt like all people was unified, from the pilots who stood at consideration to the ramp staff to the passengers all peering out of the airplane,” Sonny Garcia advised me, recalling the scene on the tarmac. “That was fairly emotional. It’s nonetheless emotional for me.”

There shall be a long-lasting influence as effectively.

The data gained gives new promise for the households of 1000’s of different fallen troopers and sailors whose final fates are nonetheless a tangled thriller. The teachings are already aiding efforts to determine American stays which were turned over in recent times from the Korean Battle, together with a whole bunch of unidentified Marines buried en masse on the shores of Tarawa in the South Pacific and the unmarked graves of American troopers positioned in the Cabanatuan prisoner of warfare camp in the Philippines.

The venture has additionally buoyed hopes of figuring out crews from different Navy ships sunk at Pearl Harbor, together with 45 males aboard the USS California and the West Virginia.

However what the Pentagon’s historical past detectives have gleaned has implications far past the U.S. army.

“It’s completely relevant to mass grave conditions,” mentioned Byrd, referring to atrocities dedicated in opposition to civilians in civil wars and different fashionable conflicts.

Byrd was there when the venture got here near by no means occurring in any respect.

“We had been principally instructed to not work on it,” Byrd mentioned. “Individuals believed it was too troublesome.”

The detective story actually begins in 1942, in the months after the Pearl Harbor assault.

The Oklahoma was amongst six ships that had been both sunk or destroyed. But it surely was the largest of the salvage jobs. Between 1942 and 1944 it was raised and refloated, primarily as a result of it was blocking a key berth the place it had been moored off Ford Island.

In 1943, earlier than the ship was towed to a salvage yard in California (it sank midway), the our bodies of the males nonetheless trapped inside had been eliminated and interred, nonetheless unidentified, in mass graves in two cemeteries in Hawaii.

Then in 1947, in hopes of figuring out them, they had been disinterred. The power to decipher the human genome to make a forensic ID was nonetheless many years in the future, so all the army needed to go on had been dental information and different defining traits or circumstantial proof corresponding to canine tags. Thirty-five males had been recognized this manner.

The remaining 391 unknowns — some 16 p.c of the complete casualties from the Pearl Harbor assault — had been collectively reburied in 61 caskets in Hawaii’s Nationwide Navy Cemetery of the Pacific and a memorial itemizing their names was erected of their honor.

That was the place the story ended for 60 years, till 2003, when Ray Emory, one of the survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack (he was a sailor on the USS Honolulu), persuaded the army to approve the exhumation of a single casket after he found information from the restoration and burials that steered that 5 units of Oklahoma stays might but be recognized by newly accessible forensic strategies.


But it surely was instantly clear when army investigators unearthed the casket how futile the effort to determine the males may be. That single burial didn’t include 5 sailors. It contained the DNA of 94 totally different males.

“That was after we actually knew how commingled they might be and that if we needed to do extra identification, we might actually need all of the stays from Oklahoma,” mentioned Carrie LeGarde, the lead anthropologist overseeing the venture in Omaha.

Figuring out precisely which bones belonged to whom would require evaluating the DNA extracted from the stays to samples taken from their surviving kinfolk.

Accumulating that materials could be a monumental process in what the command calls its largest such effort in scope and complexity.

Starting in 2009, the Pentagon relied on a crew of genealogists to find dwelling kinfolk of the crew, who had been requested to supply three cheek swabs, one for testing and two extra “in case there was a group situation or to be re-tested later with new DNA testing applied sciences,” defined Tim McMahon, director of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory.


It wasn’t till 2015 that the Protection Division lastly granted the lab approval to exhume all the unknown graves of the Oklahoma.

“We had been able to go,” mentioned LeGarde.

However the forensic obstacles had solely simply begun to emerge.

It was quickly obvious that mitochondrial DNA, the sort that’s inherited from the maternal line, wasn’t sufficient to inform many of the sailors aside. Mitochondrial DNA is comparatively simple to gather as a result of it’s so plentiful nevertheless it additionally means kinfolk who’re attainable donors for a match are restricted to these solely inside unbroken maternal lineage.

In contrast to Jesus Garcia, who was one of the few non-Caucasian crew members (in a still-segregated Navy, he was restricted to jobs serving the ship’s officers), the overwhelming majority of the Oklahoma crew was white. They had been about the identical age (most of them between 18 and 25) and principally the identical peak (the common between five-foot-seven and five-foot-nine).

It wasn’t merely that bone size and dimension had been so related. There have been quite a few circumstances of overlapping genetic markers; in different phrases, the heritage of the sailors was so related that regardless that they weren’t associated their ancestors had been.

McMahon defined it this manner: “You might have John Smith and Tim McMahon. Each their ancestors are from England, and so they have the identical mom’s line principally, or the identical sequence.”

One of these DNA sequences, as an example, matched the stays of 25 people, all of them Caucasian. “So, 25 folks all have that very same mitochondrial DNA and lots of of these had been about the identical peak and age,” defined LeGarde. “So, the anthropologists had been sort of caught once more. What will we do subsequent?”

Investigators knew they needed to collect DNA samples from the crew members’ paternal line. This materials is much less plentiful in every cell and due to this fact tougher to gather. But it surely’s additionally extra exact, giving investigators a better potential pool of kinfolk for samples to check to the unidentified stays. That meant amassing extra DNA samples from kinfolk.

“If we did not have that DNA,” LeGarde defined, “we would not be capable of do what now we have executed.”

The Oklahoma introduced one other distinctive problem in the identification course of: brothers.

There have been six units of siblings who died at Pearl Harbor on the Oklahoma, together with two units through which one sibling was recognized after the assault, and one was unaccounted for till now. Amongst the unknowns was a set of twins, the Blitz brothers, 20, of Lincoln, Neb.

For many years, the household knew little or no about what occurred to Leo, a machinist’s mate 2nd class, and Rudolph, a fireman 1st class. In the mid-Nineteen Nineties, a survivor of the assault wrote a letter to the twins’ nephew Michael Powell, recounting that when the Japanese attacked Rudolph was above deck on patrol whereas Leo was under decks. “I’m taking place to get my brother,” Rudolph reportedly mentioned.

The Oklahoma Undertaking scientists used a mix of dental information, anthropological evaluation of their bodily stays, and mitochondrial DNA, to determine the Blitz brothers.

“The twins particularly had been difficult as a result of they’ve the identical DNA, they’re principally the identical peak and age,” LeGarde defined.

In the end, it was dental information that had been most vital in the case of the twins. “That was the solely approach we had been capable of individually determine them.”

Their kinfolk had been shocked. “My sister known as me and mentioned, ‘They’ve recognized the twins,’” Powell, 69, recalled the shock information he acquired in Could 2019. “I actually didn’t suppose we’d ever, ever get that decision.”

Final 12 months, the twins’ solely surviving sister, Betty Pitsch, then 91, was there to welcome them dwelling.


For the majority of the Oklahoma circumstances, nonetheless, what proved most decisive in the identification course of was the forensic crew’s growth of new analytical instruments.

In a partnership with the College of Nebraska, the Oklahoma Undertaking created a digital software known as CoRA, or Commingled Remains Analytics. The software can mix, synthesize, and in the end match DNA sequences with various measurements of bones and different information “in simultaneous style,” Byrd defined. 5 thousand and 100 samples had been gathered over the final 5 years from members of the family and from the stays of the crew. With out the capability to crunch all the information, it will have taken lab technicians years to do the comparisons, if it had been attainable in any respect.

The Oklahoma Undertaking has additionally helped to propel forensic science ahead. With a Protection Division grant, the labs teamed up with Parabon Nanolabs, a non-public firm that makes a speciality of DNA-based therapeutics, to develop a protocol for extracting and analyzing nuclear DNA, which is inherited from each mother and father. Solely a single copy of nuclear DNA could be present in every cell, in comparison with the a whole bunch or 1000’s of mitochondrial DNA. McMahon mentioned it’s due to this fact “tougher to extract sufficient nuclear DNA from human stays samples submitted” from service members who died many years earlier.

However as soon as that materials is in hand, it raises the prospect of utilizing DNA from “anybody who was inside 4 generations of the lacking service member as a reference,” McMahon mentioned. Ideally, the lab seeks dwelling kinfolk for DNA however “in concept,” McMahon says, “we might use bone samples from a lacking particular person’s great-grandparent to acquire nuclear DNA.”

Sarcastically, the very circumstances that made identification so troublesome instantly after the assaults — the burning gas that lined the water and infiltrated the crippled ships — turned out to help investigators a few years later.

“Despite the fact that the commingling was vital, the stays had been in actually good condition,” mentioned LeGarde. “We expect that it’s attainable as a result of they had been so oil-soaked that really acted as sort of a preservative.”

“And the DNA testing was actually profitable,” she added. “And that hasn’t been the case for all Pearl Harbor stays.”

The first of the Oklahoma sailors to be recognized was Fireman third Class Alfred Livingston, who was amongst the first stays to be exhumed. He was laid to relaxation in Worthington, Ind., by his sister Louise Hobbs in 2007. The final was Ship’s Prepare dinner 1st Class Clarence Thompson of New Orleans, who was recognized on Oct. 21 of this 12 months.

As the eightieth anniversary of the assault approached, the Pentagon raced to complete its work. And as the identifications have picked up tempo so have the reburial ceremonies.

The Barber brothers — Leroy, Malcolm and Randolph — had been laid to relaxation in New London, Wisc., on Sept. 11 by their solely surviving brother. In October, the Navy buried George Gooch, 22, in his hometown of Laclede, Miss.; Walter Belt, 25, of Cleveland, Kan.; Leslie Delles, 21, of St. Charles, Ailing.; Walter Stein, 20, of Cheyenne, Wyo.; and William Shafer, 20, of Alhambra, Calif. Final month, Keefe R. Connolly, 19, was laid to relaxation in Markesan, Wisc.


After Jesus Garcia was laid to relaxation with full army honors in early October, his kinfolk gathered at the Sons and Daughters of Guam Membership, a refuge for People of Chamorro descent, the Indigenous folks of the Mariana Islands.

The grounds of the social membership, positioned subsequent to an empty lot in a working-class neighborhood of San Diego, characteristic thatched-roofed pavilions and street indicators pointing in the course of Medinilla, Sarigan and Asuncion, different islands in the Marianas.

“We, your kids of each nation, flip to you on this pandemic,” the Garcia household prayed earlier than a standard feast in honor of their fallen sailor. “Our troubles are quite a few, and our fears are nice. Grant that we’d deposit them at your toes, take refuge in your Immaculate Coronary heart, and procure peace, therapeutic, rescue, and well timed assist in all our wants.”

These lengthy overdue homecomings have served as a reminder of how the nation got here collectively even when its social and racial divides had been a lot wider than at present. “It was the 9/11 of that era, of that point and period,” Sonny advised the mourners at his uncle’s funeral mass.

“I want my dad was right here to see it,” mentioned Raynette Castillo, 59, the daughter of Jesus Garcia’s brother Francisco, who was 9 when his older brother was killed.


“I’m so glad they did this for us,” mentioned a smiling Lilla Garcia, one of Jesus Garcia’s two sisters-in-law who attended his funeral. “We by no means anticipated that he was going to come back [home].”

Those that least anticipated such homecomings are the males who make up the dwindling ranks of World Conflict II veterans; based on the Navy, solely three crew members of the Oklahoma are nonetheless alive.

Gilbert Nadeau, 95, wearing his Navy-blue sailor uniform and clutching a cane, was the solely World Conflict II veteran who attended Garcia’s burial final month in the army cemetery overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

“It’s superb, in any case these years, they lastly recognized him and introduced him dwelling,” Nadeau, who served on a number of different warships, mentioned as dozens of active-duty sailors who had been additionally in attendance gathered round him to take photographs. “It can by no means occur once more if this nation goes to hell.”

LeGarde, the lead anthropologist on the venture, has made the effort to attend some of the funerals, together with for the Blitz twins. “I feel it’s necessary to have the ability to see it and comply with all of it the method to the finish and see the way it impacts the household or the communities the place they’re from,” she mentioned.

“After 80 years, their tales will lastly be advised,” added Eugene Hughes, who has served as the Navy’s liaison with the households and the information media since the Oklahoma Undertaking. “They served with honor, and their households have sacrificed for therefore lengthy.”


Hughes shall be in Hawaii on Dec. 7 when the stays of the 33 crew members who couldn’t be recognized — both as a result of DNA couldn’t be obtained, or dental information weren’t enough — are reinterred on the Pearl Harbor anniversary.

However the forensic crew isn’t giving up hope that sometime they, too, could be recognized ought to DNA samples emerge.

“It’s not unattainable,” mentioned Byrd, “if we acquired fortunate.”

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