Inside the Quest to Name Pearl Harbor’s Unknown Victims

THe seven sailors raise their rifles in the sky and fire three rounds at once, breaking the silence at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. The military salute signifies the end of an 80-year-old mystery that traces back to Dec. 7, 1941, the beginning of America’s involvement in World War II.

Navy sailors Harold Trapp and William Trapp were killed by the battleship U.S.S. OklahomaJapanese torpedoes struck and the ship was blown up in Pearl Harbor. The Trapp family waited for weeks, months, then years as the military worked to find the brothers’ remains and send them home. There were very few bodies in the ocean that day and the Oklahoma’s remains began to mix with each other.

The U.S. Navy claimed the death of the brothers despite not identifying them. This fate was shared by many of the other 429 Marines and sailors who died aboard the vessel. The military took their remains, despite the limitations of forensic science at the time, and placed them under granite headsstones reading: UNKNOWN in 46 graves within the Honolulu Cemetery.

The Trapp brothers and shipmates were laid to rest eight decades ago in graves that bear their names. A Pentagon unit called the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has identified 361 victims of the Oklahoma over the last six years. Each grave has been exchumed and the remains have been analyzed using modern DNA technology. This year’s Oklahoma project was completed by the military and could be used as a template for other soldiers who were killed in wars. Based on its success, the DPAA believes there could soon be a day without any “unknown” military graves.

In a beautiful, sunny day, June 15, the Trapp brothers were buried at Punchbowl cemetery with full military honors. This ceremony was attended by many family members who had never met Harold and William. “I don’t think people understand what it means to have somebody who has been unidentified,” says Carol Sowar, the brothers’ niece. “Unless you go through it personally, you just have no idea what it means to have this closure.”

Harold was born on December 16, 1916On the northwest side of Chicago. William arrived 13 months later. They, along with their kid sister and Sowar’s mother, Irene, were raised 65 miles east in the rural town of La Porte, Ind., after their parents sought a slower pace of life for their family. Harold, a serious thinker with dreams of being an engineer, was incredibly thoughtful. William on the other hand was happier-go-lucky, and more free-spirited.

They were always close. Nearly every family photo shows them together—Harold, a head-taller than William—and if one of them isn’t in the picture, it’s usually because he’s the one taking it. They shared odd jobs, such as picking fruits, trapping muskrats, and selling their fur. Harold was also enlisted by William in the Navy on May 4, 1939.

It wasn’t uncommon at the time for family members who enlisted together to serve in the same unit or on the same ship. Both brothers received training in the respective areas they were interested. William, an electrician’s mate, reported for duty aboard the OklahomaEight months later, Harold, a fireman, was on board. At that moment, the ship started conducting exercises off Hawaii. Photos were sent back by the brothers showing their joy with their new life on islands. They included photos of them wearing leis, holding pineapples in their hands and standing tall on top of windswept mountains.

Harold, 24 years old, was seen on the deck of the vessel in the early morning hours of December 7, 1941. OklahomaAccording to their families, William was below while William was above. The ship was moored in the shallows of Pearl Harbor’s “Battleship Row,” and unbeknownst to the brothers, formations of Japanese dive bombers, torpedo planes and fighters were already headed their way.

Just before 8 am, the first torpedo struck the side the ship. Plumes of water climbed into the air as more torpedoes tore into the ship’s steel hull. It was the Oklahoma’s crew manned battle stations and tried to fight back, but it had been hit eight times within the first ten minutes. The ship listed and capsized when the ninth—and final—torpedo struck.

For safety reasons, Sailors leapt into hot, oil-slick waters to escape strafing runs. Others climbed up moorings to get to the U.S.S. Maryland. After the final drop of bombs, 21 Japanese ships were damaged or destroyed by the Japanese. Total 2,403 Americans perished, with 429 aboard the Oklahoma, and 1177 on the U.S.S. ArizonaThe remains of the ship are still found in Pearl Harbor.

The Navy wouldn’t normally have tried to rescue the victims. Remains of the sunken ship ArizonaFor example, they stayed on the ship. “That becomes their final resting place. It’s kind of like being buried at sea,” says Johnie Webb, director of outreach at DPAA. Webb says that because most of Oklahoma had been saved and many sailors were still alive, it was believed the Navy might be able salvage the vessel and save those who survived.

Rescuers were able to drill holes in order to save 32 people. From December 1941 through June 1944, Navy personnel continued to search for the crew members who had been killed. The remains were finally identified by laboratory staff, but only 35 men could be found. Rest were buried at the Punchbowl in mass graves. One of the eight brothers who died aboard the ship was The Trapps. Oklahoma. “I just felt for those families,” Webb says. “It’s bad enough to lose one son, but to lose two or three in some cases… I can’t imagine the grief that they had to live with.”

Pearl Harbor was attackedThis occurred nine years before Carol Sowar was even born. However, in many ways it changed the course of Carol Sowar’s life. A whole side of her family was wiped out. There were no cousins, aunts or uncles. The sadness was permanent. Her mother, Irene Louise Trapp, grieved her older brothers’ deaths until she, herself, died in 2007.

The family cherished Harold and William after their death. Photographs of them were kept as relics. It was clear that they were extinct. But they were not there. But where? Or perhaps in an unknown grave.

Ray Emory was a Pearl Harbor survivor on the U.S.S. Honolululikely to have died the very same day as the Trapp brothers. His life was spent pushing for the U.S. Military to find the remains. In 2003, after years of research, Emory approached the military with folders containing sailors’ personal information. He was armed with dental scans, service records and other evidence to prove that modern science can identify the remains at most one of these buried soldiers. Military agreed to investigate.

In 2008, researchers discovered DNA signatures from more than 100 people within a single grave. The military made its first individual identification in 2008 and ID’d four more sailors over the next two years.

It was clear that DNA is possible and there were advances in human and dental genetics. These discoveries gave hope for hundreds of families still living in uncertainty. The Navy opposed DNA testing. OklahomaThis is not to lower the expectations of families with gold stars, but to make them feel disappointed. The reliability and innovations in DNA technology have been unavoidable over time. 2015 saw the Pentagon take over the services and direct that caskets should be disinterred with the most recent DNA technology.

Exhumation OklahomaBetween June 2015 and November 2015, victims went through analysis at the DPAA labs at Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam in Hawaii and Offutt Air Force Base (Nebraska). They are home to anthropologists and archaeologists along with forensic-odontologists.

Forensic scientists cut postage stamp–size samples in bones and Tic Tac–size wedges from teeth and send them to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Dover, Del., for testing. After DNA has been extracted, it is compared to references from cheek swabs taken by relatives who are maternally connected to the missing soldier. The DPAA has vast DNA banks and is a pioneer in the identification of remains from American wars, beginning with World War II. Three-quarters (75%) of cases are DNA.

It did not possess all of the samples for family members from the agency. Oklahoma. Some of these service members were either adopted, or had no living relatives. Or they simply did not submit any family members. The DPAA managed to identify 361 of the unknown 394 service members, which represents a 92% success ratio. The majority of identified Marines and sailors were either buried at the Punchbowl, or their homes.

To identify William and Harold’s remains, DPAA researchers used mitochondrial DNA from Sowar, her brother and her two children, who all gave samples. The scientists then needed to determine if each bone that had a DNA match with the family belonged to each brother. “We were able to use dental as well as anthropological methods to individuate the brothers,” says Debra Prince Zinni, the DPAA laboratory deputy director. “We knew dentally, which skull belonged to which brother. The stature was then really important. Harold is several inches taller than William, so just from the length of the bones, we were able to determine which brother was which.”

She was stunned when Sowar received the phone call in November 2020. She was sad, of course, but also relieved to have certainty about her uncles’ fates. It was hard for her to think of her mom, as she would not have the same satisfaction. She also thought about her grandmother who had lived her entire life with her boys. “I just cried and cried and cried from relief,” Sowar says.

After she watches her uncles laid to rest under their own headstones at the Punchbowl, Sowar feels as though she’s reached the finish line of a marathon. “I don’t know how I can explain it better than I feel… that this is where they belong,” she says. “And yes, it’s 80 years, and it took a long time to come home, but they’re home.”

Shortly after the ceremony, Sowar walks into the cemetery’s Courts of the Missing, which documents each service member who went missing-in-action fighting America’s wars throughout the Pacific. Standing in the afternoon sunlight, she scans the thousands of names chiseled into the stone walls until her eyes fall on her uncles’. Next to each of them, she puts a gold ruby rosette. They are both now safe and sound.

—With reporting by Nik Popli

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