Sailor in `unknown' grave identified, will be reburied

Full military honors planned for seaman killed in Pearl Harbor

March 01, 2002|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

After 60 years in a grave marked "Unknown," the remains of Thomas Hembree, a Navy seaman killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, will be reburied next week with full military honors, the Navy announced yesterday.

Hembree, who was a 17-year-old apprentice on the USS Curtiss during the attack Dec. 7, 1941, is the first and only "unknown" Pearl Harbor casualty buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific to have been identified.

His grave - marked by a headstone that read only "Unknown, Dec. 7, 1941" - was disinterred by Army forensics experts in January 2001 for DNA testing, based primarily on information from a Pearl Harbor survivor whose research indicated that the grave likely held Hembree.

On Tuesday morning, as nearly 20 family members from California and Washington look on, he will be returned to the same grave - but this time with a full ceremony, and a headstone that bears his name, rank, birth date, ship and date and place of death.

The cemetery, located in the crater of an inactive volcano and known as "The Punchbowl," holds the remains of 646 unidentified Pearl Harbor casualties, many of them in mass graves with single markers that bear only the date of their deaths.

Hembree will be buried at a morning service that will feature the playing of taps and a three-round salute, said Jim Messner, public affairs officer for the cemetery.

A native of Kennewick, Wash., Hembree had been in the Navy just more than four months, and in Pearl Harbor for only a week, when a bomb pierced the deck of the USS Curtiss, a seaplane tender, killing 21 crew members. Nineteen were identified after the attack, but two were burned beyond recognition.

Five months after the attack, Hembree's mother received a letter from the Navy saying her son had been killed.

Another seven years passed before the family got another letter, asking whether they wanted Hembree's body buried at the Punchbowl or returned to his hometown, family members said. They opted for the Punchbowl.

In the 1980s, more than 30 years later, Hembree's sister, a beautician from Tacoma, Wash., visited the Punchbowl to find his grave, but was told he had been buried at sea.

Ten years later, she returned and asked again, and a worker at the cemetery referred her to Ray Emory, historian for the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association who had, by then, spent several years researching cemetery and military records to determine which crew members were in which graves.

About a fourth of Pearl Harbor's 2,400 victims were never identified. Many remains were buried in mass graves along with other crew members. And some information about them - such as the ships they were attached to and branch of service they were in - was lost when they were shuffled between cemeteries before ending up in Punchbowl, which opened in 1949.

Based on information from Emory - whose original goal was to get more detailed grave markers for the unidentified victims - the Army's Central Identification Laboratory, based in Hawaii, exhumed two graves of Pearl Harbor victims for DNA testing.

In one case, the tests determined the remains were not who they suspected.

In Hembree's case, DNA testing was inconclusive, but a positive identification was made through examining skeletal remains and dental records.

The lab announced the successful identification in December, and the military again gave Hembree's relatives a choice to have his remains shipped home or buried in the Punchbowl.

Emory said nearly 20 relatives of Hembree's - nieces and nephews, mostly - plan to come to Hawaii for the funeral.

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