Seaman Edward E. Casinger’s burial service on November 19, 2022, marked the twenty-eighth burial of a USS Oklahoma crewman at Arlington National Cemetery (ANC). It also marked an eighty-year journey from the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, to today. Burials of Oklahoma crewmen have a profound effect on those who make them possible, from the scientists at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) to the sailors who lay them to rest.
Since 2015, DPAA’s USS Oklahoma Project has identified 355 of the ship’s 394 unaccounted-for personnel, making these burials possible and providing closure to the families. Although the project ended in October of 2021, DPAA still has more than fifty sets of remains awaiting burial.
The battleship Oklahoma capsized off Ford Island at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, when submarines, carrier-borne bombers and torpedo aircraft of the Japanese Navy attacked the American base, forcing the United States into World War II. Hit by at least four torpedoes, the Oklahoma slowly rolled over on its side, entrapping and killing 429 sailors and Marines.
The Oklahoma remained capsized for more than a year before the Navy could right it. Salvage operation which began on July 15, 1942, led to the recovery of remains, consisting of commingled bones, and continued until May 10, 1944. Workers did their best to organize the remains before burying them in temporary graves.
In 1947, the American Graves Registration Service disinterred the USS Oklahoma crewmen’s remains but could only identify thirty-five of them. The rest were reinterred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. The case seemed closed until 2003, when, at the behest of Pearl Harbor survivor Ray Emory, a casket thought to contain the remains of five unknowns from the battleship was disinterred. Scientific analysis revealed that it contained the remains of almost one hundred crewmembers, six of whom were identified, and prompted the 2015 USS Oklahoma Project.
“If we wanted to identify more people, we would need everyone disinterred from cemetery,” explained Ms. Carrie LeGarde, the USS Oklahoma Project Lead. “We needed buy- in from families to provide DNA to meet a certain threshold.” The caskets were disinterred and, after some analysis at the laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, were sent to the lab at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, for skeletal and dental analysis. Families that were contacted provided DNA cheek swabs. It took years, but eventually, 92 percent of the crew were identified and prepared for burials.
For those twenty-eight families who chose to have their loved ones buried at ANC, the casketed remains were flown to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport where the U.S. Navy took over. A Navy honor guard met each plane at the airport and provided planeside honors and transferred the casket to a funeral hearse. An admiral attended each transfer.
At ANC, the burial services received Navy military funeral honors with funeral escort. A Navy Chaplain gave the eulogy, and a senior officer presented the folded flag to the primary next of kin. Most families considered the service a family reunion, since none of the survivors ever knew their relative. Most only knew about stories passed down from parents, aunts, and uncles, and the suffering caused by a devastating death.
The first USS Oklahoma sailor buried at ANC was Charles H. Swanson on July 26, 2010, and the burials continued, reaching their peak in 2019 when nine crewmen were buried.
Most of the Navy chaplains at ANC have performed at least one USS Oklahoma funeral service. Chaplain (Lt. Cmdr.) Robert Price, ANC’s Navy chief of chaplains, has overseen three funerals. “Pearl Harbor really was a Navy event,” he explained. “We still remember that these were our ships, the Arizona, Oklahoma, these are our shipmates.”
Price had a connection with USS Oklahoma burials. He once manned the rails of a ship pulling into Pearl Harbor, passing the USS Arizona Memorial and the Oklahoma’s mooring. “I think of those young people on that ship, 17, 18 years old,” he said, “and I look at our ceremonial guard, 18, 19 years old, and it drives it home that we are in a very serious business.”
Another ANC Navy Chaplain, Lt,. Dirk Robinson, has overseen two Oklahoma funerals and admitted they affected him. “I got choked up because it was just so emotional for me,” he said. Chaplain Robinson considered himself a historian and enjoyed reading about Pearl Harbor. “It was the catalyst that brought us into the war, and finally getting to lay them to rest here at Arlington is an amazing thing.”
Cmdr. Alexander McMahon, who commands the U.S. Navy ceremonial guard, has supported three Oklahoma burials and also has a personal connection to the USS Oklahoma, having served as the chief engineer on a ship stationed at Pearl Harbor and on the U.S. Pacific Fleet headquarters staff. “Even though a lot of time has passed for these funerals,” he said, “it hits home because they’re shipmates who gave their lives in service of their country, so it’s an honor to help give them a place to rest.”
Finally, the honor guard sailors who bore a casket for a USS Oklahoma fallen at ANC recognize the significance of the events of December 7, 1941. Seaman Mark Mahon considered burying a Pearl Harbor casualty special. “It definitely gives me a better feeling knowing that I got to be part of that history.” Seaman Grayson Smith agreed: “I do feel honored to be a part of something that was that significant in naval history.”
Seaman Case Dearinger considered the burials important simply for the sacrifice rendered by the Oklahoma’s crewmen, saying, “They didn’t have a chance to come home.” Now, thanks to the efforts of DPAA, the U.S. Navy and the descendants of the USS Oklahoma crewmen, they can.