OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, NEBRASKA: Inside an old aircraft factory here, behind the glass windows of a pristine laboratory, the lost crew of the USS Oklahoma rests on special tables covered in black foam.
Their bones are brown with age after 50 years in the ground and, before that, months entombed in their sunken battleship beneath the oily waters of Pearl Harbor.
Legs, arms, ribs, vertebrae. Some have blue tags tied with string, identifying the type of bone. Some have beige tags, indicating that experts also want samples for DNA testing.
They are the unidentified remains of hundreds of sailors and Marines who perished 74 years ago Monday, when Japan launched a surprise air attack on Hawaii and plunged the United States into World War II.
Now, seven decades later, the government is trying to put names to the old salts and teenage sailors who died when their ship was sunk by enemy torpedoes Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941.
Over the past six months, with a fresh mandate from the Defense Department, the bones were exhumed from a cemetery in Hawaii and most were brought to a new lab here, where scientists have begun the task.
The goal is to send the men home.
“It’s important for the families,” said Carrie Brown, an anthropologist with the newly created Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), which is doing the work.
“For a lot of people, it’s an event that happened in their family history,” she said, and that story “has been carried down sometimes (for) generations.”
“A lot of people say, ‘World War II. Who’s even alive? Who even remembers?’” she said. “We need to get these guys home. They’ve been not home for too long.”