Unidentified Remains of U.S. Service Members Reinterred in Hawaii as Offutt Project Winds Down
By Barney McCoy, Professor, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Dec. 7, 2021, 6 a.m. ·
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On the 80th anniversary of the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the unidentified remains of 33 U.S. service members were reinterred today in a solemn military ceremony in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Those men were among 429 sailors and Marines who died aboard the U.S.S. when Japanese torpedo bombers sank the battleship within minutes. At the time, only a few of the Oklahoma’s crew remains could be identified.
The reburial memorial marked another milestone. It signaled the wind down for a team of forensic anthropologists at Offutt Air Force Base whose work has helped positively identify more than 90-percent of the previously unknown crew who died on the U.S.S. Oklahoma.
According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, 355 positive identifications of previously unknown U.S.S. Oklahoma crew remains have been made over the past six years during the U.S.S. Oklahoma Identification Project. For more than seven decades, those sailors and Marines were the “unknowns” who went down with their ship.
Several Nebraskans were among those unknowns. Leo and Rudy Blitz were identical twins from Lincoln who served and died on the Oklahoma. When the Oklahoma was attacked, Rudy was patrolling the deck. Leo, a Navy machinist, was down in the battleship’s generator room.
The Blitz twins joined the U.S. Navy on the same day in 1938 and were described as “jokesters” by niece Sally Guenzel. “They liked to play pranks,” said Guenzel. One particular Blitz brothers’ prank is family lore. “One of them had a girlfriend but we didn't know if the girlfriend knew there were two of them,” said niece Sandra Rebensdorf. “And they'd take turns dating the girl,” added Guenzel.
Sailor Louis Tushla was 25 when he died in the engine room of the torpedoed Oklahoma. Before enlisting in the Navy, he worked during the Great Depression on the Tushla family farm near Atkinson, Nebraska. “He was 23 in 1939,” said Gerard Keating, a second cousin of Tushla’s. “Now he gets to go out in the world. And how excited he must have been.”
In 2015, the co-mingled remains of Tushla, the Blitz twins and hundreds of others who perished on the Oklahoma were exhumed from 46 graves marked “unknown” at Honolulu's National Military Cemetery of the Pacific. So began the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s U.S.S. Oklahoma identification project.
“The mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting of currently missing service members and we want to return these service members to their families and of course to the nation,” said Dr. Katie East, a forensic anthropologist on the project.
Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Nebraska is home to the Oklahoma Project’s forensic lab. It stretches one-third the length of a football field and the massive lab is where dozens of anthropologists like East have painstakingly categorized more than 13,000 bone fragments recovered from the capsized Oklahoma. These past several years scientists have inventoried and cross checked the remains with dental and medical records, ages and heights of the battleship’s dead. “For the U.S.S. Oklahoma, sometimes we have full bones, sometimes we have fragments,” said East. “We do look at every single fragment.”
Another 5,000 DNA samples from the unknown Oklahoma crew’s remains were compared to living relatives’ DNA. They were analyzed by scientists at the Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s lab. Every one of the crew remains’ puzzle pieces were used by scientists to confirm positive identifications for the U.S.S. Oklahoma’s 394 unknown crew members.
“You know it’s a big puzzle,” said anthropologist Dr. Carrie LeGarde. She leads the Oklahoma project. “That we have all these remains and we need to sort them and figure out, piece together, which ones represent a single individual.”
The project scientists efforts has resulted in a steady stream of hundreds of positive identifications that finally confirmed the identities of most of the Oklahoma’s unknown sailors and Marines after more than seven decades. In 2019, Leo and Rudy Blitz came home to Lincoln be reunited and buried with full military honors surrounded by friends and families. Carrie LeGarde was in Lincoln too where she met the Blitz relatives who told her they considered her to be a part of their family. “I think about that a lot,” saod LeGarde. “They gave me some family photos that I put up in my cubicle and it's right above my computer. So, I see them every day; The Blitz twins, these little boys.”
Last July, Louis Tushla’s remains returned to Atkinson for his military burial. More than 100 Tushla relatives were there too along with Lara McCormick. She’s another anthropologist on the Oklahoma Project who helped identify Tushla. “What it does is it allows people who have been carrying that, you know, that guilt for 70 years to heal and talk about it,” Said McCormick. “It fills in that blank picture of who that person was or could have been.”
Military historian Mitch Yockelson explained it another way. “To be able to bring that forward 80 years after the fact and say, “Okay, we found some sailors, we can positively identify them.” That's a good feeling.”
LeGrande said it's not really closure that the families and friends of the previously unidentified Oklahoma crew have gotten. “It's answers and maybe the closing of a chapter in their family's story. And I think that's a really good way to put it and to think about it,” LeGarde said.
Sue Pitsch of Lincoln is another niece of Leo and Rudy Blitz. “It was a completion,” she said about the twins identifications and coming home to be buried after almost 80 years. “It was a relief and there was a sense of peace. We knew that was a missing part of their hearts and they came back,” Pitsch said.
Gerard Keating had another view about Louis Tushla’s return home generations after he left Atkinson and died on the Oklahoma. “To me when the hearse came into town last night, I said to Louis, you’re home.”
The U.S.S. Oklahoma Project brought families together with their long lost loved ones and made good on America's promise to bring home those who have died in service their country according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
As for the Oklahoma Project? The lab had just eight employees in 2015. It blossomed in size to 52 employees, including 20 anthropologists who helped catalogue and identify most of the Oklahoma remains. DPAA officials say many of the advanced identification cataloging and identification techniques developed in the Oklahoma Project are already in use to identify remains of unidentified service members from other military battles and conflicts so those men and women’s remains may also return to their families, friends and hometowns across America.
Watch how scientist/detectives work to identify missing service members inside the Offutt Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency lab at Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue. This is a story from the Nebraska Public Media series on innovation and creativity in Nebraska, "What If..." More at netNebraska.org/WhatIf