LUKE BURBANK, host:
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more picturesque spot on the planet than Punchbowl National Cemetery. The neatly trimmed grass is lush and green and the smell of tropical flowers waltz(ph) through the air. Nestled in a volcanic crater overlooking Honolulu, Punchbowl is the kind of place anyone, alive or dead, would want to spend time in.
And yet, Ray Emory doesn't look all that happy as he marches up one of Punchbowl's gentle slopes.
Mr. RAY EMORY (Pearl Harbor Survivor; Retired Mechanical Contractor): Come along, come along. There's seven more. Seven more. Seven more we're just getting started.
BURBANK: The source of his displeasure? The 600 or so unidentified Pearl Harbor casualties beneath his feet.
Mr. EMORY: These guys got killed in battle for their country and they should be so recognized. Period.
BURBANK: At 84, Emory is stout with a thick head of white hair and a purposeful walk. He seems mildly annoyed when he talks to you. But he's really not. He's just plain spoken.
On that infamous day 64 years ago, he was reading a newspaper aboard a U.S.S. Honolulu when the alarms went off. He was one of the lucky survivors. Many of the less lucky ended up buried in Punchbowl. In the early 1990s, Ray Emory came to Punchbowl to pay his respects. What he got was a shock. The graves were scattered randomly, many with no date, no name, marked only unknown.
Mr. EMORY: You know, if I would walk in there and they had a list of where these Pearl Harbor casualties are buried, I won't gotten into all this big mess. It was what I couldn't tell (unintelligible) my God, I want to find them.
BURBANK: And so Emory, a retired mechanical contractor, embarked on a mission to identify Punchbowl's unknowns. But with no funding or official support from the military, the work has been painfully slow. So far, Emory has identified 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.
How much of your week would you say is taken up doing this stuff now?
Mr. EMORY: Eight days a week, 26 hours a day. It's basically all I do.
BURBANK: Most of it gets done in a small office attached to his Honolulu home. His wife made him build it to house all his stuff, including the big pieces of cardboard on which he's pasted together elaborate collages of old photos, ship locations and skeletal records. It's part "CSI", part junior high science fair.
Mr. EMORY: Here's a set of twins. The original Navy record says it was one of the twins buried but they - I don't know which one. I got skeletons around here for everybody.
BURBANK: The attack on Pearl Harbor was swift and brutal. It also came during peacetime, meaning sailors weren't required to wear their dog tag IDs. This meant a lot of unidentified dead. But in many cases, it's still possible to figure out who's buried where. Here's how it works: Back when the military recovered the unidentified remains, it made notes about dental work, what ships the bodies came from and anything else that stood out. By painstakingly comparing that information to the personnel files of sailors who died, Emory can eventually get some matches. But just because he can doesn't mean he thinks he should be the one doing it.
Mr. EMERY: The government could have done it. They'd be doing this - could have done it years ago. Nobody cares. Nobody cares.
BURBANK: It takes Emory a year of requests just to get one file.
Mr. EMERY: If I'm sent in there with a few records I got and they got all the records that's available to them, surely they can do it a lot faster and better job than I'm doing.
Ms. HEATHER HARRIS (Historian, JPAC): It does seem straightforward. It seems like if you had both of those files for all of the cases that should just be a job of matching it up and everything would be fixed and everything would be fine. But it's actually much more complicated than that.
BURBANK: Heather Harris is a historian with JPAC, the military command specifically created to identify old remains. Ray Emory turns to JPAC when he thinks he's ID'd someone. The relationship is cordial, though, Emory sometimes chase at a time it takes to get answers. Harris says such delays are inevitable.
Ms. HARRIS: You have to always keep in mind that we're not just identifying the Pearl Harbor unknowns here at JPAC. We're identifying everyone from the Vietnam War, the Korean War, World War II, we have civil war remains and remains from the war of 1812. We were talking about a much larger project.
BURBANK: Some 88,000 unaccounted for in all. But thanks to Emory's work, there are a few less, Thomas Hembree of the U.S.S. Curtis, and two men from the U.S.S. Pennsylvania: William Hickock(ph) and Payton Vanderpool.
Ms. THELMA BLANTON (Payton Vanderpool's Sister): He was 6'3", real tall and thin, nice looking guy.
BURBANK: Thelma Blanton is Payton Vanderpool's sister. He was 21 when he died at Pearl Harbor. Her last memory of him was when in full Naval uniform, he escorted her to a play at her high school.
Ms. BLANTON: And I can remember the girls all just oohed and aahed over him, you know, and I was so proud of him.
BURBANK: As Blanton sits in her tidy Kansas home, the emotions are still raw as she thinks about that day they found out her brother had died.
Ms. BLANTON: I went into the kitchen and mom was stirring this - probably some soup or something, and tears were just running down her cheeks. And I remember walking up to her and asking what was the matter? And all she said was, Payton.
BURBANK: Vanderpool ended up buried somewhere in Punchbowl as an unknown, which is where he stayed for over six decades until his sister contacted Ray Emory, who compared the files and deduced the grave mark Q179 was probably Vanderpool.
Ms. BLANTON: And so sure enough, it was him. Ray Emory found him.
BURBANK: Vanderpool's remains were brought home and buried next to his parents. Blanton says the funeral was as dignified as President Reagan's. People like Thelma Blanton and her brother are the reason Ray Emory spends so much time doing what he does. But he also finds something therapeutic in meticulously tracking the fallen. He's typed a hundred thousand names into a computer program, creating a list of every Naval, Marine and Coast Guard death during World War II. Many are people he served with.
Mr. EMORY: There hasn't a day gone by in my lifetime that I haven't thought about December the 7th, 1941. Never. Everything from that day has been wrapped around that day.
BURBANK: Emory knows he won't live to see all the Pearl Harbor unknowns identified.
For its part, JPAC says it continues to work on the cases as time and technology permit.
As for Emory's burial plans, there's actually no room for him at Punchbowl, but he says that doesn't matter. He's already reserved a plot in a neighboring volcanic crater known as Diamond Head. His only request is that his Pearl Harbor survivor's medal be affixed to his gravestone as a permanent reminder of what he and many others went through all those years ago.
MARTIN: That's a piece that Luke did a couple of years ago.
BURBANK: Yeah, 2005. I actually called that guy, Ray Emory, the other day, and he's two years older and no less spunky.
BURBANK: I said, Ray, how are you doing, man? How many unidentified war dead have you identified? And he said, four. And I went, gosh, that's a lot of work for four people. He goes, how many have you identified? I said, zero - zero, Ray.
MARTIN: None. It's just an amazing story - how someone can get so, you know, myopically interested in something like this. It's just…
BURBANK: Yeah, so, you know, everybody, I guess, take a moment; think about Pearl Harbor. It was kind of long time ago, but for a lot of people, it was a real defining moment…
MARTIN: Still very real for those people.
BURBANK: …I think, in our recent history.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.