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Families urge using new DNA tech to ID Pearl Harbor unknowns

By AUDREY McAVOY

The Associated Press

HONOLULU — William Edward Mann enlisted in the Navy after graduating from high school in rural Washington state. A guitar player, he picked up the ukulele while stationed in Hawaii.

He’s been presumed dead since Dec. 7, 1941, 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 who are demanding the U.S. military take advantage of advances in DNA technology to identify 85 sailors and Marines from the 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.

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

The Navy considers those aboard the Arizona to be in their final resting place. The families are not advocating for them to be removed and identified.

The issue is what to do with the 85 Arizona unknowns buried in a Hawaii cemetery. It emerged in February when the director of the Defense POW/ MIA Accounting Agency, which is tasked with finding and identifying the remains of U.S. service members from past conflicts, was asked during a Facebook Live meeting when the agency would disinter them.

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 identify 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 just a possibility discussed informally a few years ago.

Banaji also said the agency doesn’t plan to disinter the remains and try to identify them because it lacks sufficient documentation.

The military has files on just half of those missing from the Arizona, he said. 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 with the battleship. Others may have been lost in a 1973 fire at a military personnel records office.

And the military only has DNA samples from relatives of just 1 percent of the missing Arizona crew members.

McKeague told The Associated Press that what he said about identifications not being pragmatic referred to the lack of documentation, not the cost.

“We must apply our limited resources in a manner that is equitable to all families and to do so as efficiently and effectively as possible,” he said in a statement.

The agency, which aims to find more than 80,000 service members missing from World War II and on, 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 percent of the group.