Family Of Unaccounted For USS Oklahoma Sailor Wouldn't 'Let Him Go'

Originally published on April 20, 2015 11:14 am

The Defense Department announced Tuesday that it will exhume the remains of 388 sailors and Marines who were buried as "unknowns." The men were killed when Japanese torpedoes sank the USS Oklahoma on Dec. 7, 1941, during the attacks on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

The remains of only 35 crew members were identified during salvage operations. The unidentified sailors eventually were buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

Until recently, the Navy opposed testing such remains, citing concerns that "a full DNA testing and accounting could take many years and likely leave many of the missing still unaccounted for." But in its announcement Tuesday, the Pentagon said it will make an attempt at identification using genetic testing.

Tom Gray lost his cousin, 19-year-old Edwin Hopkins, on the USS Oklahoma. Gray told NPR's Audie Cornish he is "extremely grateful" at the chance to finally bring his cousin home.

"It was always a tragedy in the family — and growing up, there was always this sense of loss and just pain involved there," Gray says. "And I know Eddie's mother always thought that he was coming back, and there was no closure, you know? He went down with the ship and that's all we knew. It was not only the loss, but it was also the not-knowing, the open-endedness of it, so to speak."

Use the audio player above to hear the full interview.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Defense Department says it will exhume the remains of hundreds of sailors and Marines buried as unknowns. The men were killed when Japanese torpedoes sank their ship, the USS Oklahoma, on December 7, 1941, during the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Just 35 of the original crew were positively identified during salvage operations. The remaining sailors were eventually buried unidentified at a military cemetery in Honolulu. This week the Pentagon said under a new policy it would attempt to identify them using DNA testing. Tom Gray lost his cousin Edward Hopkins on the USS Oklahoma. He joins us now from his home in Connecticut. Welcome to the program.

TOM GRAY: How are you today?

CORNISH: Good. Thank you. I want to start by asking you what went through your mind when you got the news that the Pentagon would even attempt this - to try to identify the sailors from the USS Oklahoma.

GRAY: I was extremely grateful. That was my first reaction - that finally this journey is coming to fruition, and we're going to be able to bring him home.

CORNISH: Tell me what you know of your cousin Edward Hopkins. What did your parents tell you about him?

GRAY: Well, boy - he and my father grew up together and his older brother. They all went off to war during World War II, and unfortunately only two came back. And it was always a tragedy in the family, and growing up there was always this sense of loss and just pain involved there. And I know Eddie's mother always thought that he was coming back, and there was no closure, you know? He went down with the ship, and that's all we knew. It was not only the loss, but it was also the not knowing - the open-endedness of it, so to speak.

CORNISH: How did that play out - right? - 'cause you were very young. I mean, how did you feel that?

GRAY: Basically, I think what it was is it's the type of family where they were close-knit, and they would not let him go. They kept him alive. They kept him alive by stories. They kept him alive by talking about him and mentioning him and basically, they would not let him pass.

CORNISH: Given that Edward Hopkins at least was honored in a military cemetery, does that feel like that was never quite enough?

GRAY: Well, my feeling is this. It's a tremendous honor to be buried in a national cemetery, be it the National Cemetery of the Pacific, Arlington or wherever, and to be buried with military honors - you know, that to me is just the foregone conclusion for these poor heroes that lost their lives as children, basically. But what I have always felt wasn't right was that he was buried as an unknown as if he had never existed.

CORNISH: If your cousin's remains are positively identified and returned, what burial place do you have in mind for him?

GRAY: With his mother and father in the family cemetery. And that's - that really is the driving force for this to happen. It's - maybe it's a psychological thing, but to have a 19-year-old boy's remains marked unknown and put in a comingled grave 6,000 miles from where, perhaps, his mother and father might have wanted him is cold medicine. So this is kind of like bringing somebody back into the fold.

CORNISH: Well, Tom Gray, I want to wish you the best - you and your family and hope that you are able to bring home your cousin, Edward Hopkins.

GRAY: Well, thank you very much.

CORNISH: Tom Gray - his cousin was Edward Hopkins. Hopkins died on the USS Oklahoma during the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.