Forensic tests may identify remains from Pearl Harbor
Cary, N.C. — Dawn Silsbee and her siblings never knew their Uncle Bert — he died years before they were born. But they saw what his loss did to their family.
"Our grandmother openly wept, every year — every Dec. 7," the North Carolina woman said. "And I think part of it was because she really didn't know where Bert was."
Bert Jacobson's family has always known the details of his death: That he went down on the USS Oklahoma during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But his remains — and those of more than 400 other sailors and Marines who died on the battleship that day — were never identified, but were instead commingled in a dormant volcanic crater a few miles from Pearl.
Now, nearly three-quarters of a century after that day of "infamy," their families might soon get the closure Bert Jacobson's mother was denied.
Last month, the Department of Defense announced plans to exhume the Oklahoma remains at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, commonly known as the Punchbowl. Work is expected to begin in a few weeks, after the state health department issues the permits.
"We now have the ability to forensically test these remains and produce the identifications," says Debra Prince Zinni, a forensic anthropologist and laboratory manager at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Hawaii.
Past attempts to identify casualties of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack have ended in failure. And this renewed effort has spawned a debate over how best to honor their sacrifice and, in effect, whether these men belong to the families or to the nation.
In a way, Silsbee and her siblings — Bradley McDonald and Colleen Williams — owe their Uncle Bert everything.
During boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Jacobson became fast friends with O.C. McDonald, an orphan from South Dakota. During a visit to Bert's home in Grayslake, Illinois, "Mac" fell in love with Jacobson's sister, Norma.
"If he hadn't brought my dad home to meet his sister, my mother, we — the three of us — would not be here," Williams said as she balanced in her lap a scrapbook dedicated to Bert and her father.
At Navy tech school, Jacobson and McDonald formed one half of a group of buddies that called themselves "The Four Musketeers." The others were Henry Ford II, grandson of the car magnate, and Chet Jankowski.
When training was through and assignments were handed out, Jacobson and Jankowski couldn't believe their luck — and couldn't wait to rub it in.
"They came up waving their orders in their hand and waving them in the face of my father saying, 'We got paradise. We're going to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii,' " says Brad McDonald. "And my dad was stuck with a set of orders for the North Atlantic during the winter, which wasn't too nice."
Jacobson and Jankowski ended up on the USS Oklahoma, a Nevada-class battleship commissioned in 1916.
The Japanese attacked on a Sunday. According to shipmates the siblings met at a USS Oklahoma reunion, Jacobson had spent the hours before the attack helping ferry men to shore for liberty. He'd been up all night and had likely just turned in when the Japanese planes struck.
"Poor Bert died before he knew there was a war going on," says McDonald.
The Oklahoma was hit by at least nine torpedoes. A total of 429 men on the ship lost their lives.
Engineers didn't refloat the battleship until November 1943. Remains recovered during the salvage operation were initially interred as unknowns at two nearby cemeteries.
The Oklahoma graves were reopened in 1947, and dental comparisons conducted on the remains. But after proposed identifications for 27 of the unknowns were disapproved, all the remains were re-interred at the Punchbowl.
Soaked in oil and exposed to the elements for two years, the remains were bundled in military blankets and placed into caskets. Many gravesites have multiple sets of remains in them.
In 2003, about 100 sets of Oklahoma remains were dug up as part of another identification effort, but it was unsuccessful.
Over the next several months, workers will open 45 graves containing a total of 61 caskets. The agency says the forensics could take up to five years, with a success rate of 80 percent.
Jacobson's nieces and nephew gave DNA samples during an event several years ago. Silsbee wants to see this through for her grandparents — her grandmother, in particular — who had Bert's name etched between theirs on a gravestone back in Illinois.
"As she didn't have closure and didn't know where he was, we would like to have that," Silsbee says.
If their uncle's remains are identified, they would like him moved to Arlington National Cemetery.
Of the roughly 60,000 people who survived the attack, only around 2,000 are estimated to still be alive. Chet Jankowski is one of them.
At 93, the Swansea, Illinois, man has difficulty remembering his old buddy, Bert Jacobson. "I had a lot of friends that lost their life," the old sailor said, his voice barely audible.
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