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Finding the Smallest Points of Light on One of History's Darkest Days
November 23, 2016  | By David Hinckley

A new PBS special on the sinking of the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor finds a tiny ray of sunshine in a terrible story.

Pearl Harbor – The USS Oklahoma – The Final Story, which airs at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday (check local listings), recounts the decades-long effort to identify some of the remains found inside the hull of the sunken ship.

It focuses on the handful of sailors whose remains did get identified, giving the show a positive aura as great-grandchildren talk about how long their families have waited for some measure of closure.

Their relief and gratitude are evident, and it’s a tribute to family members whose dogged pursuit of answers spans several generations.

What’s hard to avoid, however, is the big question on which this documentary seems to deliberately place no emphasis.

Why has this process taken 75 years?

The answer seems to be that for the military it was never a priority or, perhaps, even a big concern.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Oklahoma quickly rolled and sank – the only ship to do so, though others were crippled in the water.

The sinking trapped crew members at their battle stations below deck, and while they were protected by sealed air pockets, there was no way to get them out.

Well, there was a way, by cutting into the hull, and a few dozen men were rescued that way. But engineers feared that further cutting might trigger massive gas explosions, so the Navy decided it could do nothing.

Over the next two weeks, the men inside those pockets pounded on the walls for help and then died – some from lack of food and water, some by suffocation when the air ran out.

In all, 429 crew members from the Oklahoma died.

Thirty-five were identified, and their bodies returned home.

The other 394 were officially classified as “unknown” and buried in a military cemetery, though not for a while. It wasn’t until 1943 that the Oklahoma was raised and the remains recovered. By then it was all skeletons, many of them mixed together.

At that point, the show notes, the military was understandably focused on winning the war. So no real identification effort was made.  

Around 1949 the military tried to match remains against dental records, the best option in the pre-DNA era, and 27 men were identified.

But none of their skeletal remains were intact, and it was against military policy to return partial remains to a family. So the families were told nothing, and those 27 stayed buried with the “unknowns.

It wasn’t until 2002, more than 50 years later, that the names of those 27 surfaced – to the total surprise of their families.

Those 27 include the men whose survivors are featured in this show.

The hour also touches on some of the broader Pearl Harbor stories, such as the failure of Americans to heed visible signs that the attack was under way.

The focus, however, falls on the more specific story of several hundred families who never really knew what happened to their husbands and sons.

It was almost two weeks after the attack before families got any official notification, and then it was only to say their serviceman was missing in action. They were left to imagine much of the rest, which in some cases meant clinging for months or years to the hope that somehow he had survived.

The Oklahoma special will be immediately followed by a companion show titled Pearl Harbor – Into the Arizona. That one features new footage shot inside the hull of Pearl Harbor’s best-known casualty, and some of it is predictably haunting.

The two shows do send the heartening message that some people, at least, never forget the sacrifices of veterans.

They also reinforce William T. Sherman’s message that war is hell.

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