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In all, more than 9,400 service members killed in World War II and other past conflicts are buried as “unknowns” in American cemeteries around the world. Yet, according to a recent investigation conducted by National Public Radio and the independent nonprofit newsroom ProPublica, officials at the Pentagon in charge of accounting for American POWs and MIAs rarely approve disinterments of any of these soldiers in order to identify them through DNA evidence. On average, the investigation concluded, the Defense Department’s Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command (J-PAC) gives the go ahead in less than 4 percent of such cases.

One of the cases they declined to pursue was that of U.S Army Private First Class Lawrence S. Gordon, who was killed at Normandy in 1944 when a German shell hit his armored car. As reported by the Daily Beast and ProPublica, filmmaker Jed Henry (whose grandfather served in Gordon’s unit) began investigating the case in 2011 and was able to find evidence that the U.S. Army had recovered two badly burned, unidentifiable bodies from the armored car and buried them as American unknowns. After the war, however, the Army dug up the remains and found both bodies wore German clothing. They were able to use fingerprints to identify one of the bodies as Army Pvt. James Bowman, who had been in the turret of the armored car next to Gordon. The other set of remains, which could not be identified, was dubbed “X-356” and turned over to the German government because of the German clothing, after which it was interred in a German crypt in France.

U.S. Army Private First Class Lawrence S. Gordon (Credit: Gordon Family)

U.S. Army Private First Class Lawrence S. Gordon (Credit: Gordon Family)

When presented with Henry’s findings, J-PAC concluded in 2013 that there was not enough evidence to exhume the remains, given the thousands of other men who died in the area during that time. (Gordon’s Canadian citizenship might also have been a factor, though he was born to American parents and chose to enlist in the U.S. Army.) Gordon’s family and Henry then brought the same evidence to French and German authorities, and were able to persuade them to exhume Gordon’s remains and perform DNA tests to definitively identify him. After France’s National Forensic Science Institute found that DNA from one of the molars matched that of a nephew of Gordon’s, Brigadier General Dirk H. Backen of the German Defense Attaché wrote to Lawrence R. Gordon, Gordon’s nephew and namesake, that “He will come home and that is what counts. He fell in a battle against my countrymen, but he did this under a just cause: To liberate Europe from fascism and to restore peace, freedom and humanity. His sacrifice was not in vain.” Gordon’s remains will be turned over to his family in a ceremony in France on June 10.

Families of sailors killed aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, are looking for similar closure. According to the Los Angeles Times), it was Ray Emory, a 92-year-old survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, who learned through painstaking investigation that the bodies of 27 sailors had been identified through dental records in 1949. An anthropologist working with the military apparently refused to sign off on the identifications, however, and the families were not notified. Instead, the partial remains were buried in five caskets marked “unknown” in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, better known as the “Punchbowl.”

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In 2003, Emory managed to convince J-PAC to exhume one of the five caskets, and the remains of five servicemen were turned over to their families after DNA tests identified them. Now, the families of the other 21 sailors (one family could not be located) are fighting for the military to do the same for their loved ones. They have the support of a bipartisan group of 15 senators, who delivered a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last month urging him to order the exhumations. Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.), who helped lead the senators’ efforts, said that “Given that many of these 21 sailors were Navy firefighters who died heroically trying to put out the fire on their ship on that horrific day, the least we can do is give them a final resting place of their families’ choosing to honor their bravery.”

The U.S. Navy opposes the exhumation of the Oklahoma sailors and prefers to keep them in the Punchbowl, where they may be allowed to “rest in dignity,” in the words of Lt. Cmdr. Sarah Flaherty, a Navy spokeswoman. According to Lisa Ridge (whose grandfather’s remains are among those buried in the Punchbowl), part of the Navy’s opposition is due to the fact that about 100 bones belonging to unknown Pearl Harbor victims were discovered in the exhumed casket alongside those of the five now-identified sailors. “They don’t feel like it’s right to open up any more until they identify those,” Ridge told the L.A. Times, though she considers this argument merely a stalling tactic.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees the cemetery, and the Navy have final say over the disinterment, and Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, says the Defense Department’s POW/Missing Personnel Office is looking into the feasibility of disinterring and identifying the remains. Until that happens, Ridge and the other family members of the 21 sailors will continue to wait.

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