SAN DIEGO – On Wednesday, a sailor killed at Pearl Harbor will be buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego. It will be an especially poignant day for three sisters and their family members who live in La Jolla, California.
They are the granddaughters of Daniel Fletcher Harris, chief fire controlman of the Oklahoma battleship, one of the first bombed when Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Harris, born in 1901 in South Carolina, was stationed at the Naval Training Station San Diego in 1937 when he was assigned to serve on the Oklahoma. He left behind his wife, Aino, and a 2-year-old daughter, Joyce, who later graduated from Helix High School in La Mesa, California.
The remains of Harris and his shipmates who couldn’t be identified remained in Hawaii graves for years until substantial advances were made in DNA and identification technology.
These graves and others bearing service members from additional U.S. Navy ships that met their demise at Pearl Harbor are being re-examined systematically by scientists of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in the hope of bringing closure to loved ones – at last.
The Navy began the grim task of disinterring and identifying the remains of the Oklahoma’s 388 missing service members in 2015. (They are working to identify smaller numbers of missing sailors from the West Virginia, California, Utah and Nevada ships.)
In its quest to make a positive match, the Navy first reached out to families of the unidentified casualties requesting a reference sample of DNA.
Since then, 355 have been positively identified, including seven Navy members and one Marine from the San Diego area. The remains of the remaining 33 service members who could not be positively identified, including one from San Diego County, were relaid to rest in Hawaii with full military honors.
The families of those identified were given the choice of burial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, where they previously had been interred, or a military-paid funeral at a cemetery of their choice.
“This is the covenant this nation makes to its service members,” explained Kelly McKeague, head of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. He stressed the adage: “Leave no man behind.”
He discovered that, despite the passage of years, family members still craved answers. Stories of loved ones who died in combat were passed down through generations, and the lack of a body posed haunting, unanswered questions.
McKeague described family reactions to identification news as “euphoric” – a mixture of sorrow and joy because the loss is offset by the fact that the loved one finally has come home to rest.
Harris’ granddaughters, Shannon McKee, Jeanne McKee and Dianne McKee Roberts, were notified in August 2019 that a positive match had been made of their grandfather.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Shannon said. “The day I got the call was anniversary of our mother’s death.”
Because their mother was only 2 when her biological dad died, she never knew him. “We don’t know much, other than he met my grandmother in New York. She had come over from Finland,” Shannon explained. Harris’ widow remarried when Joyce was still young.
They have no pictures of their grandfather, other than those in his U.S. Navy file. Nevertheless, his memory was kept alive. Shannon visited the Pearl Harbor National Memorial when she was about 15.
Years later, she began a tradition of taking her nieces and nephews to visit Pearl Harbor and to see the USS Oklahoma plaque bearing Daniel Harris’ name when they graduated from college.
The bonus gift is, thanks to the Navy’s genealogical research, the granddaughters are getting in touch with relatives of their grandparents they never knew.
Last Thursday, they gathered at the San Diego airport to meet a Southwest flight bearing Daniel Harris’ remains from Nebraska, where a lab on Offutt Air Force Base conducts scientific analysis.
Before passengers deboarded, the pilot greeted them, and the casket was ceremoniously met by a Navy honor guard. Harris’ remains then were escorted to the cemetery by motorcade flanked by Patriot Guard Riders.
McKeague said some families choose reinterment in Hawaii, some opt for Arlington National Cemetery, but the vast majority choose a family cemetery in their hometown.
“We chose Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery because his wife and daughter are both buried in San Diego,” Shannon said. “This is where he was living, so we thought we would reunite him with them.”
In addition to his three granddaughters, Harris has five great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.
Family members will continue to honor Harris through visits to the cemetery, Shannon added. “We want to keep his memory alive.”
“I think it’s amazing, after all these years, to have these remains and, through DNA, be able to identify him. … Our family couldn’t be more thankful to the Navy for all their persistence and the hard work they have done in making sure that he is able to be put at rest.”
Carrie LeGarde, lead anthropologist of the USS Oklahoma Project, says Harris was identified through DNA from his fibula.
Identification was especially challenging and complex because remains had been comingled in group graves. For instance, one casket contained 94 separate DNA sequences.
For those who could not be identified, they often lacked a relative’s DNA sample. For instance, the one San Diego sailor who was reinterred in Hawaii, Musician 1st Class Rowland Hampton Smith, was adopted, and Navy genealogical researchers couldn’t identify a biological relative.
LeGarde said, through her case research, she makes a connection with all these sailors. “I really enjoy … seeing them go home.”
An especially touching case was that of twins, Leo and Rudolph Blitz, who died together on the Oklahoma. LeGarde was invited to their funeral and met four generations of the Blitz family.
“They gave me a pin and said I was part of the family. We often don’t get to have that communication with the families. It made it that much more special,” she said.
McKeague notes that his agency is working in 46 countries across the globe to find and identify remains of service members from four major conflicts. “It’s an opportunity for this nation to make right something that leaves a void in the hearts and minds of families.”
The Oklahoma, moored on Battleship Row, was among the first hit by Japanese aircraft torpedoes. According to Navy records, most crew members were still in their sleeping quarters during the attack at 7:55 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 7.
Within 15 minutes of the first strike, the Oklahoma had rolled over, imprisoning those unable to escape within her hull. Sailors trapped inside started banging on the bulkhead to attract the attention of passing boats.
Holes were cut in the exposed ship bottom and 32 men were pulled out alive. Nothing more could be done, and the bulkhead banging continued through Dec. 10 as helpless sailors stood watch over the sunken ship waiting and listening until the banging faded away.
In total, 429 sailors lost their lives on the Oklahoma.
“We realize what a special gift it is,” Shannon says. “And our hearts go out to all of the military who have not been found.”
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