The defense agency backs off a "notional" plan to disinter 85 USS Arizona "unknowns" from the sunken battleship

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Jul. 27—A Defense Department agency appears to be walking back a "notional plan " to disinter 85 USS Arizona crew members buried as "unknowns " at Punchbowl cemetery and then reinter them, unidentified, onto the sunken battleship, which is a revered memorial in Pearl Harbor.

Some families made emotional appeals to the Defense POW /MIA Accounting Agency to not only disinter the men, but then take the step of identifying them through DNA and other methods so the Dec. 7, 1941, heroes can be returned to relatives for burial.

But DPAA now says there are no plans to disinter the 85 unknowns due to the lack of crew historical and dental records as well as DNA family reference samples needed for identification, which would be "extremely complex and not feasible."

Randy Stratton, son of USS Arizona survivor Don Stratton, who died last year at age 97 and is buried in Nebraska, said a high-ranking DPAA official told him three times that the men won't be reinterred back on the battleship.

DPAA's "notional plan " to do that, revealed in February, would have been unprecedented.

So would the logistics. Presumably, the thought was to have the remains cremated. But DPAA now notes, without confirming any such plan, that Defense Department policy approved in late June states that for group remains, if any member of that group has not been identified, "the Armed Forces Medical Examiner will not approve cremation as a final disposition for the group."

Lauren Bruner in 2019 was the most recent individual Arizona crew member to have his cremated remains placed within the battleship. Bruner, who died that year at age 98, was the 44th survivor to be interred on the ship since 1982.

Randy Stratton is adamant that the 85 USS Arizona unknowns be identified.

"We're still pushing. We're not stopping until the 85 are identified, " the Colorado resident said Monday. "They've done that for (other Dec. 7 ships including ) Oklahoma, California, the West Virginia."

Stratton said he's reached out to U.S. Reps. Lauren Boebert and Doug Lamborn, both from Colorado, and U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Tom Cotton of Arkansas for help—including with newer DNA testing methods that he believes could be cheaper and faster.

Advances in science, particularly DNA, have made identification possible for many of the unknowns who were buried decades ago at Punchbowl, officially known as the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

All of the USS Oklahoma unknowns—388—were disinterred in 2015.

DPAA exhumed 94 caskets from the Battle of Tarawa, 35 from the USS West Virginia and 25 caskets from the USS California along with hundreds from the Korean War, to boost its annual identifications.

It's now planning to disinter about 400 who died as prisoners of war on Japanese transport ships, including the Enoura Maru, which had conditions so bad they were called "hellships."

Of the 1, 177 killed on the Arizona, 105 were recovered and identified, DPAA said. That resulted in 1, 072 unaccounted for, with about 985 of those men still entombed on the ship, one additional crew member later identified, one unidentified who remains in DPAA's lab, and 85 at Punchbowl, according to the agency.

Stratton's daughter, Nikki, started a petition at seeking identification of the 85 crew. As of Monday, 1, 283 people had signed the petition. The only two men still alive from the battleship, Lou Conter and Ken Potts, both asked for identification and for families to decide on burial.

"Why is the USS Arizona not being given the same respect and honor as those who are currently being identified with the USS Oklahoma ?" Nikki Stratton said in her plea.

The accounting agency says the USS Arizona identification would be a "monumental " scientific undertaking.

Agency Director Kelly McKeague said at a Feb. 20 online "family member update " that "we could never take on " the process of identification because DNA and other reference samples would have to be obtained for all 1, 177 of the ship's fatalities.

In a subsequent interview, McKeague said that "'never' is a strong word. Obviously, we could " identify the crew members.

But only about 130 dental records and 12 DNA family reference samples are on file for the Arizona crew. The feasibility also is affected by the fact that the men still in the ship—the vast majority of the crew—will never be identified, the agency said.

Interring the 85 plus the one unidentified crew member in the lab back into the USS Arizona would have provided the "fullest possible accounting " in DPAA's eyes—without the complexities of DNA and other identification.

The agency estimates that 38, 000 Americans still missing from the nation's past wars are recoverable around the world.

"In order to provide equitable treatment to all family members, it's a balancing act for us to be able to assess the likelihood of identification in order to determine the appropriate use of limited resources, " McKeague said. "That's what it comes down to. So it's a balancing act : limited dollars, limited capacity and capabilities."

Identification of the Arizona unknowns "would not be prudent from our perspective, " he said. DPAA was asked for a ballpark figure for disinterment and identification, but it said it did not have one because "such a project is extremely complex and not feasible."

Any disinterment decision ultimately rests with the assistant secretary of defense for manpower and Reserve affairs, McKeague said.

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