After 75 years, Pearl Harbor remains are identified

Today we (WI state employees) got an email from the governor’s office.

Today Governor Walker issued Executive Order #188, relating to a proclamation that the flag of the United States and the flag of the State of Wisconsin be flown at half-staff as a mark of respect for Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Vernon T. Luke of the United States Navy, of Green Bay, Wisconsin, who lost his life during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. …”

So I Googled this man’s name, and found a Stars & Stripes story about a new effort to identify the remaining unknowns from the attack, or at least those from the battleship Oklahoma.

It seems remarkable and praiseworthy to me that there are still people who care enough to continue this forensic work.

According to the article, 2 of the 5 identified sailors were from Wisconsin, which makes me wonder why the other one wasn’t mentioned in the email. Perhaps he’ll get a separate honor at a future date.

The US Military is still very active in the search and recovery of over 1,500 service members who fought in Vietnam as well. They never stop looking.

I can understand how the remains are unidentified, but how can there be “unknown” lost sailors? Surely the Navy knew who was there and who didn’t survive, right?

It looks like they knew exactly how many died, but whose remains they found were unknown.

From the article in the OP:

So the Navy knows exactly how many it lost. But the remains could not be linked to particular names, so were buried as “unknown”:

It looks like the Navy used “unknown” and “unidentifiable” interchangeably.

I understood that part. I don’t understand why Wisconsin is just now having a flag-lowering day when they knew that Luke was dead 50 years ago.

Dunno – maybe his official status was “missing”, or maybe this something like a belated service. I have a friend who’s grandfather died in a ship sunk in WWII. His body was never recovered. But she recently learned the military would still offer to fund a memorial marker, assuming one didn’t yet exist. She’s pondering whether to do that, mostly because she doesn’t know where to put it.

Typically the military cemeteries will have “Tablets of the Missing” or something similar, which lists anyone for who there was never an identifiable body found. This includes all the burials of unidentifiable bodies (“unknowns”) out in the cemetery proper.

So to use a rather prominent example, the man laid to rest in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is virtually guaranteed to be listed by name on the Tablets of the Missing in one of the European/African permanent cemeteries, in the Manila WWII cemetery or in the Punchbowl cemetery.

The government knows who’s missing, and they have a bunch of bodies that they can’t identify (or couldn’t, with the techniques of the day), so they list the known names in one place, and bury the bodies as unknown.

That’s what happened here, except that now for some reason, they’re digging them back up and trying to identify them.

It’s actually a fascinating and poignant subject to research, if a bit macabre. The lengths that the government went to to recover and identify remains in Europe and Asia is rather astounding. They’d literally identify where a plane was shot down, and go interview locals as to where the wreckage was found, where any bodies were subsequently buried, etc… Then they’d go dig them up, and try to conclusively identify them based on biometrics, personal effects, etc… They did the same for infantrymen, but there were a lot less, as we were on the advance, and save situations where they were utterly destroyed, they were generally identified.

(google “Crosses in the Wind” for a wartime memoir of the graves registration service, google “final disposition of world war ii dead” for a military book on the process post-WWII)

Today the governor ordered state flags flown at half-staff on Wednesday to honor the second Wisconsin sailor recently identified from Pearl Harbor remains. His burial service will be tomorrow. It now makes sense to me why the orders were given separately – to correspond to other services for the deceased.