Bethany Glenn never met her grandfather, John C. England, a 20-year-old Navy ensign from Alhambra who perished in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
But 73 years after that day of infamy, Glenn has made it her mission to recover the remains of England, who rescued men in the battleship Oklahoma’s radio room before he fell.
Glenn and the families of 20 other sailors killed at Pearl Harbor say their loved ones are buried as “unknowns” not far from where they died on Dec. 7, 1941. They want the military to exhume the remains and identify them through DNA testing so they can be brought home to be buried alongside their families.
A plot awaits England by his parents’ graves in Colorado, Glenn said, noting that it had been purchased by her great-grandmother.
“She never gave up hope that someday they might find something of him,” said Glenn, 45, who lives in Washington state near the Oregon border.
The Navy says it doesn’t want to disturb the sanctity of the graves. But a bipartisan group of U.S. senators has taken up the families’ cause.
The dispute grows out of the efforts of Ray Emory, a sleuthing 92-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor who learned what had happened to seamen buried after the attack that brought the United States into World War II.
Emory discovered that the remains of 27 sailors on the Oklahoma had been identified in 1949, through dental records, when they were being processed for burial in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, better known as the Punchbowl, in Hawaii.
But an anthropologist working with the military declined to sign off on the identification.
“They didn’t have all the pieces of every person,” said Lisa Ridge, an Indiana teacher working to recover the remains of her grandfather. She said the military at the time did not want to turn over partial remains. As a result, the remains were buried as unknowns in five caskets.
“They never told the families that these people had been identified,” said Tom Gray, a Connecticut man seeking to recover the remains of his cousin. He said Edwin Hopkins, a 19-year-old fireman first class aboard the Oklahoma, “deserves better than a commingled grave marked ‘unknown’ 4,000 miles away from his family.”
In 2003, Emory persuaded the military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command to exhume one casket. DNA tests identified five sailors and the remains were turned over to their families.
The families of 21 other sailors — one family could not be located — are now trying to persuade the military to do the same for their loved ones. At least seven of the sailors lived in California.
The Oklahoma, which capsized soon after it was hit by multiple torpedoes, suffered 429 deaths, second only to the battleship Arizona’s 1,177. The Defense Department lists 388 of the Oklahoma crew members as unaccounted for.
Bob Valley, 81, of Escanaba, Mich., whose 19-year-old brother, Lowell, was killed aboard the Oklahoma, has worked to track down relatives of the 21.
Some families didn’t want to be bothered. One family told him: “Leave him where he is. Don’t disturb him,” Valley said.
But most of the families are eager to recover the remains, even if they never knew their relative.
“I’d like to see him brought home,” said Ken Schultz, 58, of the uncle he was named after, Kenneth Jayne. Jayne would be buried alongside family members in Patchogue on Long Island, where a VFW post bears the sailor’s name.
Families said proper burials would help them achieve closure.
Ridge used to dream that her grandfather, Paul Nash, a 26-year-old fire controlman first class aboard the Oklahoma, was wandering the streets of Hawaii suffering from amnesia.
“I’d look at pictures from Hawaii and wonder if that guy right there on the street could be my grandfather who assumed another identity because he didn’t know who he was,” she said.
Ridge, like other family members, said she would take any remains of her grandfather she could.
“You give me a single tooth, I’m happy,” she said.
Glenn learned through Valley in 2008 that her grandfather was among the sailors interred in one of four still-buried caskets.
“It was unbelievable, really,” she said.
During the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ensign England rushed to the radio room three times to save men. On his fourth rescue attempt, he didn’t come out.
The slender and good-looking England died four days short of his 21st birthday, leaving behind a month-old daughter — Glenn’s mother. Two Navy ships were named after him, including one commissioned in 1963 in Long Beach.
Alhambra High School, where England was senior class president in 1938, presents the J.C. England Award to recognize a graduating senior who has “excelled in character, integrity and benevolent service.”
Fifteen senators recently wrote Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a former Senate colleague, urging him to approve the exhumations.
“Given that many of these 21 sailors were Navy firefighters who died heroically trying to put out the fire on their ship on that horrific day, the least we can do is give them a final resting place of their families’ choosing to honor their bravery,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.), a leader in the effort.
The Navy prefers keeping the Oklahoma casualties at Punchbowl so they may “rest in dignity,” said Lt. Cmdr. Sarah Flaherty, a Navy spokeswoman.
A large number of unknowns would remain unaccounted for, given the state of the remains, Flaherty added. Still, she noted, the Department of Veterans Affairs, which oversees Punchbowl, and the Army, which has authority over unknown remains of World War II service members interred in national cemeteries, would have final say over the disinterment.
The Pentagon’s chief spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office is leading a working group to determine the feasibility of disinterring and identifying remains associated with the Oklahoma.
Ridge said the military’s opposition stemmed from the discovery of about 100 bones of unknown Pearl Harbor victims in the casket that held the five now-identified sailors. “They don’t feel like it’s right to open up any more until they identify those,” she said. But she considers that a stalling tactic.
“The Navy’s position is that they are home,” Schultz said. “But to us, that’s not being home if they’re not with their loved ones.”