USS Oklahoma (BB-37) was commissioned in 1916, a Nevada-class battleship. the first class of oil-burning dreadnoughts (an “all-big-gun” armament scheme, with an unprecedented number of heavy-caliber guns, and steam turbine propulsion).
On August 13, 1918, Oklahoma was assigned to Battleship Division Six and departed for Europe alongside battleship Nevada. They joined destroyers Balch, Conyngham, Downes, Kimberly, Allen, and Sampson just west of Ireland on the 23rd of August.
Battleship Utah joined them 26 days later where the group protected American convoys coming in and out of the area. In October of 1916, under the command of Charles B. McVay Jr. (Admiral after WWI), escorted troop ships into port in the United Kingdom. Oklahoma suffered six casualties between 21 October and 2 November to the 1918 flu pandemic. On November the 26th they left for Portland where they met the battleship Arizona.
She would help out in the civil war in Spain. Oklahoma sailed to Bilbao, arriving on July 24, 1936, to rescue American citizens and other refugees whom she carried to Gibraltar and French ports.
Oklahoma was moored in berth Fox 5, on Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, in the outboard position alongside the battleship Maryland. The Japanese attacked and struck Oklahoma with 2 torpedoes that did not breach the hull. The crew went to battle stations as a third torpedo tore through the already damaged hull.
As she capsized 2 more torpedos struck and the men were strafed with machine-gun fire as they tried to abandon ship. Some of the crew made it onto the USS Maryland where they helped with anti-aircraft fire. Eight torpedoes ended up striking the USS Oklahoma.
In only 12 minutes she rolled over until halted by her masts touching bottom, her starboard side above water, and a part of her keel exposed. Father Aloysius Schmitt was the first chaplain killed in World War II
and many others remained trapped under the hull. Cutting crews tried their best to rescue as many as possible. Julio DeCastro, a Hawaiian civilian yard worker, organized a team that saved 32 Oklahoma sailors.
A total of 429 crew died, 14 marines, 415 sailors; survivors jumped off the ship 50 feet into burning hot water or crawled across mooring lines that connected Oklahoma and Maryland. Many died over a period of 3 days from slow suffocation.
In 1943, before the ship was towed to a salvage yard in California, the bodies of the men still trapped inside were removed and interred, still unidentified, in mass graves in two cemeteries in Hawaii. In 1947, in hopes of identification, they were disinterred, and 35 were identified.
The remaining were collectively reburied in 61 caskets in Hawaii’s National Military Cemetery of the Pacific and a memorial listing their names was erected in their honor.
60 years later, in 2003 they removed one of the caskets and it contained the DNA of 94 men. They would need samples from all the families to compare to sort this mystery out, a monumental task. The process started in 2009.
It wasn’t until 2015 that the Defense Department finally granted the lab approval to exhume all the unknown graves of the Oklahoma. It was soon apparent that mitochondrial DNA, the type that is inherited from the maternal line, wasn’t enough to tell many of the sailors apart.
On behalf the U.S. Navy, I express my sincerest gratitude and appreciation to the scientists and experts who have committed the tireless hours to identify the remains of those lost aboard USS Oklahoma. While the nation owes a debt to the families that can never fully be repaid, identifying those lost and returning them to their families is a meaningful step in gaining closure and properly honoring the Sailors and Marines of the USS Oklahoma.Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve Affairs Greg Slavonic, an Oklahoma native and retired Navy admiral
In 2019 a partnership with the University of Nebraska, the Oklahoma Project created a digital application called CoRA, or Commingled Remains Analytics. The tool can combine, synthesize, and ultimately match DNA sequences with diverse measurements of bones
and other data “in simultaneous fashion,” John Byrd, director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, explained.
The Oklahoma Project has also helped to propel forensic science forward. With a Defense Department grant, the labs teamed up with Parabon Nanolabs, a private company that specializes in DNA-based therapeutics, to develop a protocol for extracting and analyzing nuclear DNA, which is inherited from both parents. Only a single copy of nuclear DNA can be found in each cell, compared to the hundreds or thousands of mitochondrial DNA. On December 7, 2021, the remains of the 33 remaining unknown remains will be reinterred in Hawaii. Hope still remains that someday these men will also be identified.