Remains of up to nearly 400 USS Oklahoma crew to be exhumed

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Rescue crews work on the upturned hull of the 29,000 ton battleship USS Oklahoma December 8, 1941. The ship capsized after being blasted by Japanese warplanes December 7, 1941. Holes were burned through the hull to permit the rescue of some of the men trapped below. Credit: Library of Congress Source: US Navy

(CNN) — Remains of up to nearly 400 unaccounted for service members tied to the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor will be exhumed this year, the Defense Department announced Tuesday.

The hope is that most of the battleship’s sailors and Marines can be identified.

“The secretary of defense and I will work tirelessly to ensure your loved one’s remains will be recovered, identified, and returned to you as expeditiously as possible, and we will do so with dignity, respect and care,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work said in a statement. “While not all families will receive an individual identification, we will strive to provide resolution to as many families as possible.”

The USS Oklahoma sank when it was hit by torpedoes on December 7, 1941, during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A total of 429 sailors and Marines on the ship were killed.

Thirty-five crew members were positively identified and buried in the years immediately after the attack, according to the Defense Department. By 1950, all unidentified remains were laid to rest as unknowns at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

In 2003, five more service members were identified, with the help of historical evidence from Pearl Harbor survivor Ray Emory, 93.

Emory, a native of Peoria, Illinois, was serving as a seaman first class on the light cruiser USS Honolulu that fateful day.

After the war, Emory worked in Washington state before moving to Hawaii about 30 years ago. The retiree made it his mission to ensure graves are properly identified.

“It’s something I looked forward to for a long time,” he told CNN about Tuesday’s announcement.

Speaking by phone from Honolulu, Emory said that proper identification means a lot to the families of those who lost loved ones — and to him.

Next of kin were being notified starting Tuesday. Service members who are identified will be returned to their families for burial, with full military honors.

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