DNA On Envelopes Identifies World War II Sailor
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In 1941, an 18-year-old sailor named Gerald Lehman wrote a series of letters home to his mother from the USS Oklahoma. It was then stationed in Hawaii. There were tales of adventure and hints of homesickness. Does anybody ask about me, he wanted to know?
It was all spelled out in beautiful script and mailed back to his hometown in Hancock, Michigan. And then came Pearl Harbor. Decades after sailor Lehman was killed in that attack, the DNA lifted from all those letters has helped identify the young soldier's remains. It's quite an amazing detective story described in Honolulu's main newspaper, The Advertiser.
Lehman's niece, Peggy Germain, led the effort to find and identify his remains and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.
Ms. PEGGY GERMAIN: Thank you.
NORRIS: What was your family originally told about his death and where exactly his remains were?
Ms. GERMAIN: The family didnt think there were any remains. He was unknown and unrecoverable.
NORRIS: In trying to find out more about what actually happened on the USS Oklahoma, I understand you got some help from a historian there in Hawaii, from the USS Oklahoma Association. How were they able to help you out?
Ms. GERMAIN: Not only help, he was the catalyst that opened this case up so that we knew that there were remains that were actually buried at the Punch Bowl.
NORRIS: The Pacific Punch Bowl, is that what you're talking about?
Ms. GERMAIN: Yes, I think it's the National Pacific Cemetery, but it's known better as the Punch Bowl because of its shape.
NORRIS: Now, tell me a little bit more about the hunt, how they were actually able to take the DNA from those letters and match that against his DNA and actually identify those remains. How did that happen?
Ms. GERMAIN: Let's see. There's three criteria, if my understanding is correct. They need dental, they need historic data, and they need DNA. And that's where it turned into this conundrum because two sailors had the same mitochondrial DNA, and I understand that mitochondrial DNA, there's, like, lots of DNA available for sampling, but with nuclear, a person's own, there's very few, and it's very difficult and very expensive.
The governments used mitochondrial DNA processing for years, but now with Gerry's case, because there were two with the same, what to do? How can you fine-tune it to identify Gerry positively?
I called my cousin to see if she had any hair or garments or anything that would have his DNA on. She thought, oh my goodness, I've got about 70 letters that Gerry sent home to our grandmother, and his DNA would be on the envelopes that he licked himself. That was a positive.
NORRIS: So they were able to use the nuclear DNA from the saliva on those envelopes to make a positive match?
Ms. GERMAIN: And it's almost like predestined serendipity because why did our grandmother, instead of slitting across the top, she slit down the left vertical edge, and so the flap was never opened. The seal was intact, and the scientist became very animated when he said that there was no contamination.
NORRIS: Well, now after all this, after your uncle Gerry has been buried in a casket with four other men, I understand that his remains are now heading back to Michigan, along with a military escort.
Ms. GERMAIN: Yes, it's surreal.
NORRIS: And what are the plans for burial?
Ms. GERMAIN: We'll have a funeral Mass because we know who to thank, and this is certainly God's dream. In fact, I wanted to honor my mother by writing about her kid brother, but God had a much grander dream than mine, and that was to fulfill my mother's fondest wish, which was to get her baby brother back.
NORRIS: Well, Peggy Germain, congratulations to you. Thank you so much for sharing your story and your time with us. All the best to you.
Ms. GERMAIN: Thank you.
NORRIS: That's Peggy Germain, the niece of Gerald Lehman, a sailor killed at Pearl Harbor. His remains have been positively identified after 68 years, with the help of DNA found on letters that he had sent home.
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