Luke Burbank, NPR
Ray Emory, a Pearl Harbor survivor and retired mechanical contractor, in his home office in Honolulu. Emory has created numerous charts to try and figure out the identities of the Pearl Harbor "unknowns" buried at Punchbowl National Cemetery.
Thelma Blanton of Kansas City, Kan., holds a picture of her late brother Payton L. Vanderpool, who died at age 21 at Pearl Harbor. He was buried as an "unknown," but through Ray Emory's work, Vanderpool was recently identified.
Luke Burbank, NPR
One of the 600 "unknown" Pearl Harbor graves at Punchbowl National Cemetery in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Luke Burbank, NPR
A set of remains under analysis at "JPAC," the Joint POW/MIA command in Honolulu. JPAC's job is to try and identify unknown military remains –- some dating back to the War of 1812.
Sixty-four years ago today, just before 8 a.m. local time, Japanese forces attacked the U.S. Naval Station at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. By 9:45 a.m. the battle was over, but for the United States, World War II was just beginning. The attack killed some 2,400 U.S. personnel, sending many of them to a watery grave. Of the bodies that were recovered, 25 percent were never identified. And they might have remained so, if not for the tireless work of 84-year-old retiree Ray Emory.
Nestled in a volcanic crater, overlooking Honolulu, Punchbowl National Cemetery is home to some 600 unidentified Pearl Harbor casualties.
"These guys got killed in battle for their country and they should be so recognized, period," says Emory.
At 84, Emory is stout, with a thick head of white hair and a purposeful walk. Assigned to the USS Honolulu, he was one of the lucky ones who survived that infamous day. Many of the less lucky ended up buried in Punchbowl, where, 50 years later, Emory came to pay his respects. What he got was a shock: The graves were scattered randomly, many with no date, no name and marked only "unknown."
"If I'd walked in there and they'd had a list of where these Pearl Harbor casualties were buried, I wouldn't have got in to this big mess," says Emory. "It was when they couldn't tell me that I said, 'By God, I'm going to find 'em.' "
Emory, a retired mechanical contractor, embarked on a mission to figure out the actual identities of the unknowns at Punchbowl. With no training, funding, or official support from the military, the pace has been glacial. In nearly 15 years, Emory's research has led to the identification of just three sets of remains. He says he has a good hunch on many more, but must wait for the military to make the IDs official.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was swift and brutal. It also came during peace time, meaning sailors weren't required to wear their dog-tag IDs. All this led to a high rate of unidentified dead. But in many cases, it's still possible to figure out who's buried where.
"The government could have done this, could have done it years ago," says Emory.
Heather Harris is a historian with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), the military command specifically created to identify old remains. It's the group Emory turns to when he thinks he's ID'd someone.
"We aren't just identifying the Pearl Harbor unknowns here at JPAC," says Harris, "we're identifying everyone from the Vietnam War, the Korean War, World War II, the Civil War, and the War of 1812 — we're just talking about a larger project."
That's 88,000 unaccounted for in all. But thanks to Emory's work, there are a few less "unknowns."