When Bill Sopp received a call from someone claiming his second cousin had been tentatively identified among the remains of the men who went down with the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor, he thought it was a scam. As far as he knew, he didn't have a cousin who died at Pearl Harbor.
But an investigator from the Pentagon was able to persuade him to give a sample of his DNA, and Machinist's Mate First Class Charles H. Swanson of Maywood, Calif., was identified nearly 69 years after he died. Sopp, 65, of Webster, N.Y., his brother, and their families buried their cousin with full military honors last July in Arlington National Cemetery.
Working against time
The second problem the investigators face with the Oklahoma, and with so many of the service members who died in combat and were not identified, is the length of time that has passed.
The remains are so old that the type of DNA most commonly used in forensic identifications has broken down and can't be used. So investigators have to use mitochondrial DNA, which is not as precise in identifying individuals and is passed down through the maternal line — meaning only some relatives will have it.
As they puzzle through the problem of extracting DNA, the investigators have furthered the science, developing a protocol that allows the scientists to work with smaller samples while still leaving something to return to the family. The protocol is now used around the world, according to U.S. Army Lt. Col. Louis Finelli, the laboratory director.
The Pentagon has drawn fire from a group of family members of the men of the Oklahoma for not disinterring more of the caskets still buried in the Punchbowl. Bob Valley, of Escanaba, Mich., the brother of one of the men who died in the ship and remains unidentified, says he has evidence that four of the graves should probably contain 22 specific men. He said he and another researcher have tracked down family members of most of those men.
Canik said the lab would need at least 10 years, if it were able to work exclusively on the Oklahoma, to identify all the remains. And that's if they had DNA samples from family members for comparison.
The investigators have used mitochondrial DNA to identify five of the men who went down on the Oklahoma and have found dental records to identify a sixth. So far, the military has only located family members of 56 of the men on the Oklahoma.
"There may be somebody out there who lost a relative on the Oklahoma," Canik said. "We need them to get in touch with us."
The Pentagon has a team of 600 forensic anthropologists, logisticians, policy officers, DNA scientists, genealogists and equipment experts who work on hundreds of cold cases a year. In trying to track down family members, sometimes they go so far as to petition courts to briefly unseal adoption records.
"We had to explain to the court that if this person isn't located, this service member will never be identified," said Larry Greer, public affairs director of the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office.
Because of privacy issues, the Pentagon won't say whether that's what they did in the case of Swanson, who was the son of the biological sister of Sopp's maternal grandmother. Sopp's grandmother may have never known about her nephew. She was adopted as a child.
"They won't tell us how they did it, but I'm glad they did," said Sopp.
Susannah A. Nesmith is a freelance writer based in Miami.
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