Paula L. Ratliff, BSC, MS
Criminologist and Author
As funeral arrangements are being finalized for Howard “Scott” Magers of the Merry Oaks and Railton Communities, people are asking “How did it take almost 80 years to bring him home?” “How was he missing in action?” “Did they just find his remains?” The answers to those questions are complicated and the process has displayed both the best and perhaps, the not so pristine work of our government and military officials.
Scott enlisted in the U.S. Navy on January 8, 1941, at the age of 17 and after completing his training, he reported for duty aboard the USS Oklahoma on May 8, 1941. The USS Oklahoma had been stationed in Pearl Harbor since December 6, 1940, one year and one day prior to the fateful attack. It was there, along with the U.S. Pacific Fleet, to provide a presence in hopes of discouraging Japanese aggression. History shows us that the “presence” actually created an opportunity to destroy, almost, the entire fleet.
On Sunday morning of December 7, 1941, just before 0600 hours, a fleet of Japanese carriers launched formations of dive bombers, torpedo planes, and fighters against the vessels moored in the shallows of Pearl Harbor. The bombing lasted almost two hours, damaging 21 ships and 320 aircraft, killing 2,390 people, and wounding 1, 178 others.
The USS Oklahoma was hit by a torpedo and capsized about 20 minutes after being struck, sustaining 429 causalities of the 1,354 crew members. The attack thrust the United States into World War II.
According to a roaster of causalities compiled two weeks after the attack, Magers was listed among the missing; his status was subsequently amended to reflect that he died as a result of the attack. (U.S Navy Historical Report).
December 1941 through June 1944, Navy personnel recovered the remains of those who perished, interring them in mass graves in the Halawa and the Nu’uanu Cemeteries in Hawaii.
September 1945, the remains were disinterred by the American Graves Registration Service from the two cemeteries. They were transferred to the Central Identification Laboratory at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.
At that time, only 35 men were identified out of the 429 killed. Nearly 400 unidentified remains were buried as “Unknowns” in 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl in Honolulu.
In 2003, a single casket, associated with the USS Oklahoma was disinterred. Anthropological and DNA evidence have shown the remains to be extremely commingled, with at least 95 individuals represented in the first disinterred casket based on mitochondrial DNA results, according to Dr. Carrie Brown, DPAA Forensic Anthropologist, and USS Oklahoma Team Leader. Of this group, only five were identified. Thus, they began the process of collecting DNA from surviving family members. It is difficult to comprehend, that our sailors’ bodies were commingled and the bones were literally spread among 46 plots.
As science advanced and DNA identification processes improved, in 2015, as part of the USS Oklahoma Project, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, through a partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs, exhumed all of the unknown remains from the USS Oklahoma, and began the lengthy identification process. (Source: National Park Service, USS Oklahoma). Some of the remains were in a laboratory in Hawaii and others were shipped to Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. The human body contains 206 bones, multiply that by 400 bodies and that produces 82,400 bones. Working on this for six years, scientists from both labs identified approximately 13,733 fragments a year.
So, it is probable that Scott has been interred and exhumed from three locations in Hawaii before his trip to the laboratories in 2015 where he remained until being identified in Nebraska of December 2020. It is probable that bones from the same person could have been at both labs.
This is the same journey for all of the men that perished on the USS Oklahoma. As of February 2021, the Navy reported less than 100 remain to be identified. It is my sincere hope that the remaining MIAs will be identified and returned home before the 80th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
The US Defense POW/MIA website states “…more than 82,000 Americans remain missing from WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the Gulf Wars/other conflicts. Out of the missing, approximately 75% of the losses are located in the Indo-Pacific, and over 41,000 of the missing are presumed lost at sea (i.e. ship losses, known aircraft water losses, etc.). Kentucky has 1,304 missing.
It is regretful that this process has encompassed almost 80 years, leaving families to live with the unknown. In the case of the USS Oklahoma casualties, the bodies were not missing as they were all interred together. It seems our government could have done more to make this happen quicker.
As we celebrate Memorial Day, let us remember the ones that are home and may we pray for those who are lost and yet to be identified. May they find peace in strength in our prayers.
Note: Sailor Elmer Lawrence of Railton also perished on the USS Oklahoma and has been identified. Details of his homecoming have not been released.