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'An honorable commitment': Remains of Pearl Harbor victims identified more than 80 years later

Sailors of the USS Oklahoma pose for a photo
Posted at 6:11 PM, Jan 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-14 01:31:43-05

BILLINGS — The Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) in partnership with the U.S. Navy and the National Memorial of the Pacific has been working to identify the remains of U.S. servicemen from the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

Recently, the remains of Herman Schmidt of Sheridan, Wyoming were identified through dental, anthropological, and DNA analysis—more than 80 years after his death.

Herman Schmidt
Herman Schmidt

The discovery was made in 2021, but has just recently been announced to the public.

Remains from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific—or "Punchbowl"—were exhumed between June and November of 2015 for analysis.

According to a press release from the Navy, prior to the 2015 disinterment, 388 service members were unaccounted for from the USS Oklahoma. Since then, 355 have been individually identified. Schmidt was one of those 355.

The press release also states 429 Sailors’ remains were originally recovered in 1944, but only 35 were able to be identified at the time. The 388 others were interred as “unknowns” into gravesites in 1950. But thanks to new technology, hundreds of those are now emptying.

Crewmen aboard the USS Oklahoma
Crewmen aboard the USS Oklahoma

“It doesn’t matter when the conflict happened or when the death happened or where it happened, we still try to bring them home as fast as possible," said Captain Robert McMahon, the Director of Navy Casualty on Friday. "It honors the families to bring them home closer to where they’re at rather than Hawaii."

McMahon said that after the remains are identified, notifications are made, and the family decides if they would like the remains moved to another cemetery or stay at the Hawaii memorial cemetery.

Schmidt's remains are being moved to Arlington National Cemetery, where he will be closer to family.

McMahon enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1991, but he said things were a lot different in the early wars than they were when he enlisted.

Schmidt joined the Navy in 1937.

“If you look back at past wars, they were a non-volunteer force. I volunteered in ’91, so we’re a volunteer force," McMahon said. "But either way, we owe them closure and let them know that we will never stop looking."

Closure—but sometimes, that closure came too late.

“The unfortunate thing is these families have had to wait 81 years to get that type of closure, but it’s still just as important as someone who passed away last night," McMahon said. "It’s just as important to those family members as it is to the ones from previous wars."

McMahon said the Navy is assisting families after the notifications are made and is covering the costs of funerals. A traditional military service is also done at the new resting place.

USS Oklahoma
USS Oklahoma

“It would be like a traditional military service like you would see at Arlington. It’s the 21-gun salute, typically a Flag Officer will present the flag to the family,” McMahon said.

But not all families choose to move their loved one's remains.

Gene Maestas is the Public Affairs Specialist at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Maestas told MTN News on Friday that some are choosing to leave their family member's remains at the Hawaii memorial cemetery.

“Some of these individuals that are identified, sometimes the family decides to re-inter them back here at Punchbowl," Maestas said. "Then I get the opportunity to take them on a tour, and to talk to them about their experiences. It’s really emotional for me because I’m a 30-year veteran and I get what they’re going through."

According to Maestas, the remains were originally discovered mainly co-mingled.

“After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, especially onboard the ships, a lot of the ships capsized. So when they came inside and had to basically remove the remains, the remains were co-mingled at that point and unidentifiable," Maestas said. "So at the time, the Navy usually made that decision of what remains go into what caskets.”

Originally, there were 64 caskets buried in 48 gravesites from the USS Oklahoma at what is now known as Punchbowl, according to Maestas.

USS Oklahoma after Pearl Harbor attack before capsizing
USS Oklahoma after Pearl Harbor attack before capsizing

The Navy press release states 61 caskets were originally buried in 45 gravesites.

Maestas began working at the memorial cemetery in 2015, around the time the DPAA began its disinterment process.

“It truly is an honorable commitment to make sure that these individuals finally have closure. It’s been a fantastic partnership that we have had with the POW/MIA Accounting Agency," Maestas said. "This partnership basically from the inception of disinterring the USS Oklahoma unknowns, has really provided closure for many families."

Closure provided to families—something Maestas said is priceless.

"You can see that it really is worth the effort, and no amount of money can pay for the loss and the grieving that they have had for many years. A lot of times the mothers and the fathers never knew that their sons were identified," Maestas said. "But then it’s the nephews and the nieces that lived with their grandfather or grandmother that come and tell the stories to us about what it meant to them, and how important it is for them to fulfill that legacy."

And other active-duty servicemen like McMahon agree.

“If I am lost due to some conflict, I know the Navy is still going to bring me home to my wife and daughters. To me, that’s very important. They need that closure," McMahon said. "That’s why it’s important to me because I know my country is going to keep looking for me. It’s huge. And we’ll never stop, we’re always looking."

For more information on the identification of Schmidt's remains, please click here.

“It’s just huge because these families have just been waiting for some type of closure," McMahon said. "And if we can bring that to them, then that’s a win."

Sheridan newspaper announcing memorial service for Schmidt
Sheridan newspaper announcing memorial service for Schmidt

Herman Schmidt, Gunner’s Mate Third Class- Awards and Decorations

-Purple Heart Medal
-Combat Action Ribbon
-Good Conduct Medal
-American Defense Service Medal (with Fleet Clasp)
-Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (with Bronze Star)
-American Campaign Medal
-World War II Victory Medal

The awards and decorations information was provided by the U.S. Navy but may not be complete.