Honoring the Fallen
Until recently, 647 American servicemen were buried in a Hawaiian military cemetery with markers bearing nothing more than the inscription “unknown.” Despite facing numerous obstacles including indifferent bureaucrats, a smug Army officer and a retired Marine turned less than appreciative cemetery custodian, an 85 year old Pearl Harbor survivor has embarked on a personal crusade to identify the so-called “unknowns” that were killed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
In the days following the attack, military officials were faced with the grim task of how to proceed with the burial of over 13-hundred recovered bodies. Some were burned beyond recognition. Others had no identification. The Army buried their dead at Schofield Barracks. The Navy interred their dead at the Nuuani and Halawa cemeteries. In 1946, many of these bodies were disinterred. Identifiable remains were so marked, while those who remained unidentified came to rest at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl.
Ray Emory was aboard the USS Honolulu the morning of December 7th, 1941, and witnessed firsthand the Japanese attack. For the past 13 years Emory has played the part of amateur sleuth, trying to match the names of missing servicemen to those buried as unknowns at Punchbowl.
The retired mechanical contractor calls his work a labor of love. Using the Freedom of Information Act, Emory scours medical and dental records, as well as individual personnel deceased files and burial records searching for useful information. When Emory thinks he has solved a case, he turns his information over to authorities at JPAC, (the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, at Hickam Air Force Base0, for further study.
To date, Emory has helped put names to three servicemen previously listed as unknowns. The feisty senior has also engaged the services of several Congressmen to enact a law, which forced Punchbowl’s chief custodian to add information to several hundred other grave markers.
Emory enlisted in the Navy in August 1940 and was aboard the cruiser USS Honolulu the morning of December 7th. “We were tied up inside the yard. I was…at my bunk…reading the newspaper. All I heard was ‘uh-uh-uh.’ I thought, ‘this is a heck of a time to be having a drill. They haven’t finished feeding the crew yet.’ I put my newspaper in my bunk straps. The ladder going topside was about five feet from my bunk. We were aft on the portside just outboard of turret number four, one deck down. I hit that ladder and in about two steps I was topside. I had to get to the after-superstructure on the port side.”
“As I was going…in between turret four and five, I heard some machine-guns going off. I thought, ‘this is a good mock air raid, I’m going to hurry to my battle station to watch this.’ I went up to the after-superstructure. There was four of us assigned to two .50 calibre machine-guns. I was the first one up there. I got the cover off one of the guns and the other about halfway off, when I saw a torpedo plane…they were dropping the torpedoes off our fantail.”
“I stuck my head around the corner…and watched that torpedo go right inside the Oklahoma. When the wall of water went up I thought, ‘God, they weren’t supposed to do that.’ As I turned around to pull the cover the rest of the way off the gun…I saw this plane go by with this big red ball. Immediately I thought, ‘Oh God, the Japanese are attacking.’ I wondered who declared war on whom first.”
“The ammunition was locked-up. I took a dog wrench and as I was beating on this lock, Stevens, the second member of our gun crew, got there. As I was beating this lock he says, ‘Emory, what in the hell are you doing?’ I said, ‘Stevens, the Japanese are attacking.’ He thought the man with the little white coat should be there helping me off.”
“About that time another torpedo plane goes by. I said, ‘There goes one of those s.o.b.’s right now!’ When [Stevens] saw that, he just about came unglued. Roy Hayter the 3rd Class Gunner’s Mate was in charge of us and the water-cooled machine-guns. Something told him to turn on the water circulation for the guns on the way up. We fired at whatever came close. I saw one airplane go down…a torpedo plane between us and the sub base. That was the only plane I saw go down that day.”
“I saw nothing on battleship row. I didn’t even hear the Arizona going up. I didn’t know what happened on battleship row until after the attack was over. I stuck my head around the bulkhead and saw what happened. I couldn’t believe it. Unbelievable.”
“The gun crews stayed in General Quarters all day and all night. We got more .50 calibre ammunition [and] belted that during the day. We thought [the Japanese] might be back the next morning. Luckily they didn’t come back.”
Emory left the USS Honolulu in 1943 to serve aboard the USS Feland, (APA-11), an amphibious transport. He later participated in the landings at Tarawa, Kwajalein, Saipan, Guam, Leyte, Luzon and Iwo Jima.
Emory launched his quest to identify the “unknowns” just prior to the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. “I strolled up to Punchbowl and asked a Department of Veterans Affairs employee where the Pearl Harbor casualties were buried. They couldn’t tell me. I walked out of there with my tail between my legs. That’s when I got started.”
Emory equates his detective work to a giant jigsaw puzzle. His first step was to identify where all of the Pearl Harbor casualties were buried. “I got my hands on original burial records and compared them to the unknown files. We found where all the Pearl Harbor casualties were buried, including 381 that were shipped back to the mainland after the war. We found one on a pig farm in North Carolina. We got him disinterred and into a State veteran’s cemetery.”
Trying to identify an unknown is a complex process that takes immense amounts of time and patience. According to Emory, “First, you’ve got to know who the casualty is…you [need to find out] something about him. You need a copy of his individual personnel deceased file. It’s harder to get them now. It takes about a year. Nowadays, they cost about $20. You used to get two for nothing. If there are no dental records, you’ve got to get the family…to get a copy. The dental records are a starting point.”
Numerous other documents and reports add to the paper trail. “You’ve got to go through…casualty lists, burial lists, it’s like a checkerboard. I isolate them to start with. For example, on the Pennsylvania we’ve got six people missing. Since they did not report sending any bodies to the beach, we have a place to start. You can zero in on certain things. It is a process of elimination.”
Emory’s sleuthing efforts have resulted in the positive identification of three sets of “unknown” remains. His first success was Seaman Thomas Hembree followed by Fireman 2nd Class Payton Vanderpool Jr. and finally Seaman 2nd Class Warren Hickcok.
Emory has also managed to prove that seven sailors resting in grave P-989 were all from the USS Oklahoma and he has succeeded, against he wishes of Punchbowl’s top administrator, in having additional information added to the markers of some 250 headstones.
Through a legislative edict sponsored by the late U.S. Representative-Democrat Patsy Mink, 74 markers, believed to hold 124 sets of remains, have been upgraded to include ship information for unknown crewmen of the USS Arizona. A further 177 markers have also been inscribed to include the name of the ship the deceased was serving aboard.
Emory recently managed to have 36 previously unknown markers at the Punchbowl changed to reflect the fact those dead lost their lives in a tragic accident in the West Loch area of Pearl Harbor. On May 21, 1944, 163 servicemen died when an LST loaded with ammunition and fuel exploded, setting off a chain reaction that destroyed several ships. Five of the 36 markers had the wrong date while almost one-half had no date at all. With Congress’ help, all 36 markers will now bear the inscription: “Unknown - Pearl Harbor – West Loch Disaster – May 21, 1944.”
The Army agreed with Emory’s proposal to have the West Loch markers updated, “but Veteran’s Affairs said they couldn’t make the change and gave a list of excuses 10-thousand miles long.” A letter from VA said while, “the intent is admirable, the National Cemetery Administration cannot change description data on a grave marker of the unknown sailors. Mortuary burial records already yield the information posed by the new description.” NCA protocol states markers cannot be replaced unless an unknown has been identified, or there was an error on the original marker, or the marker shows signs of wear or vandalism.
Over the past 15 years, Emory’s mission has been met at times with derision from the Punchbowl’s director, retired Marine Corps Colonel Gene Castagnetti, who has been quoted as saying it was a waste of taxpayer’s money to replace a grave marker, just to indicate an unknown was from a particular ship or died on December 7th, 1941.
Emory says, “Mr. Castagnetti…doesn’t like us going up there and getting these new grave markers. He’s…made comments…regarding that. To me, if a person gets killed…his grave marker at least ought to have what ship he was on, what battle he died in when he died.”
In October 1999, Emory’s requests for information resulted in a terse letter from Army Lt. Colonel Robert B. Stewart, Chief of Mortuary Affairs who wrote: “We have expended more than enough manpower and hours in researching and responding to your many inquiries. This will be our final response.”
Despite meeting resistance from the highest levels, Emory continues with his mission to honor the fallen. Emory receives no funding for his work and to date his undertaking has cost him several thousand dollars. “Official support?” he says with a chuckle. “Years ago, when I first got into this, I had the feeling they didn’t want to open up World War II records. I was not very well, I think appreciated, or welcomed at the JPAC lab. They finally realized that maybe somebody understood the system and knew what they were doing. Now, I’m more received. I can walk through the door at JPAC and everyone is smiling at me and saying good day to me.”
“All these families were told the bodies were never recovered. And bodies were recovered. You’ve got 640 in Punchbowl out of Pearl Harbor that weren’t identified. That means 640 families were lied to. After WW II…the Graves Registration Service…had the responsibility to…recover all the bodies and get them back to a state or national cemetery or back to their parents. They didn’t have enough trained personnel. Read…The Final Disposition of World War II Dead…it was a disaster. They ran out of space up at Schofield Barracks where they were burying them at the time. They got permission to put them in steel containers. They no more started that when there was a steel strike. They had them stacked up at Punchbowl over four high for over 2 years.”
Emory says when he gets the call that a case he has worked on has resulted in a positive identification, “I stand up and cheer. It’s quite rewarding. That phone call and being able to call the family and say we have positively identified a loved one, well, those are the two nicest phone calls.” Emory has managed to attend two of the three funerals. “The family is happy. It makes you feel good. But of course I’m working on the next one by the time that happens.”
Emory is currently working on approximately 100 investigations. “It’s endless,” he says. “Any one I get I’m happy.”