The hearse took six hours to complete the roughly 200-mile journey halfway across Nebraska this year, traveling down roads lined with fire trucks and people waving American flags for a homecoming that had been deferred for eight decades.
Inside were the remains of Louis Tushla, a fireman first class in the U.S. Navy who had been stationed in the main engine room of the U.S.S. Oklahoma when it sank during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Using DNA taken from a nephew, the Pentagon was finally able to identify the remains of the 25-year-old sailor in 2020. They were released in July from a Defense Department laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha and taken to Atkinson, in north central Nebraska, where Mr. Tushla was buried alongside his parents.
“It brings a sense of a realization of the great sacrifice that they made,” Msgr. James Gilg, 80, whose father was a first cousin of Mr. Tushla, said in an interview on Monday.
As the nation observes the 80th anniversary of the attack that drew the United States into World War II, the military said this week that a six-year project to identify those killed on the Oklahoma had matched human remains from the ship with the names of 355 sailors and Marines.
Thirty-three of the ship’s crew members could not be identified by comparing remains with DNA samples from relatives or dental records as part of the project, which began in 2015 and which officials said had ended.
According to the Pentagon, those remains will be reinterred on Tuesday at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, a site nicknamed the Punchbowl. In total, 429 crew members from the Oklahoma died after several torpedoes struck the ship. Nearly three times as many service members died aboard the U.S.S. Arizona, which suffered the heaviest losses in the attack.
Civilian researchers and military commanders discussed the project’s findings during a news conference on Monday at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii. They said that 13,000 bones had been analyzed and inventoried after the military received approval to disinter them in 2015.
“It’s our responsibility as a nation to bring these sailors and Marines home to their families,” Capt. Robert McMahon, the head of the Navy’s casualty office, said during the conference. “We’ve sent them off to war.”
The unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor killed more than 2,400 Americans and struck a blow to the Navy’s Pacific fleet, which had been based at Pearl Harbor. It hastened the United States’ entry into World War II, with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt calling Dec. 7 a date that “will live in infamy.” The next day, Congress declared war against Japan.
For decades, efforts to identify the remains of sailors and Marines entombed in the sunken ships were hampered by lost records and the difficulty of accessing their watery graves, which some family members had said should not be disturbed.
But advances in genetic testing gave families and the military new optimism. In addition to the 355 sailors and Marines who were identified during the project, six names were matched from 2007 to 2010, researchers said.
“Three hundred and sixty-one families now have answers,” Kelly McKeague, the director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency for the Pentagon, said during the news conference.
Carrie LeGarde, the lead anthropologist for the project, said that some of the medical and dental records for the crew members were lost in the ship.
“For some of these service members, it can be difficult to find a living biological relative,” Ms. LeGarde said.
The remains of nearly 82,000 U.S. service members from several wars still have not been identified, the vast majority of whom are from World War II, according to the Pentagon. Separate efforts to identify crew members of the U.S.S. California and the U.S.S. West Virginia, which were also attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, are continuing, military officials said.
Even though several generations have passed since Pearl Harbor, Ms. LeGarde said, some of the Oklahoma’s crew members have living sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews who are often quick to share stories about their relatives.
“The work that we do is for them,” she said.
Timothy McMahon, the director of DNA Operations for the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, said on Monday that those who worked on the project were each given a key chain with the photograph of a service member whose remains had not been identified.
About 100 of the Oklahoma’s crew members who were identified still have not been reinterred, according to the military, which attributed some of those delays to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Tushla’s family members received notification in 2020 that his remains had been identified. That came in time for them to plan a funeral in conjunction with an extended family reunion that was held this summer.
His relatives prepared an obituary, which said that he had worked on a farm before joining the Navy. Mr. Tushla’s first enlistment was rejected because a tonsil infection; he was finally accepted to the Navy after having a tonsillectomy.
In a letter to the Navy on Jan. 20, 1942, his parents pleaded for updates, one month after receiving a telegram that their son was missing in action.
“We are terribly worried and would appreciate it very much if you could aid us in anyway,” his parents wrote, according to the obituary. “Could you tell us if the ship Oklahoma has been raised as yet, as we thought all along that perhaps he went down with the ship.”
Monsignor Gilg, whose father was a first cousin of Mr. Tushla, said that he had often heard stories about his relative’s sacrifice while growing up.
“It gives you a connection to world history in a way that you never had before,” he said of the identification.
Jack Begg contributed research.