NEW YORK – Following the Associated Press report on August 2 that families are urging the use of a new DNA technique to identify unknown victims of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Lou Katsos, founder and president of the East Mediterranean Business Culture Alliance (EMBCA) and Chairman of AHEPA’s Hellenic Cultural Commission shared his father’s first cousin’s story: “[Fireman First Class in the U.S. Navy] George Catsos (my father’s first cousin) died in battle in the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on the ‘Day of Infamy’ on December 7, 1941 and is entombed in the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, a U.S. National Memorial. George born in New Jersey and was, I believe, the first Hellenic-American to die in World War II. He was the son of Antonios G. Katsos (my grandfather Ilias' younger brother) born in Alevrou, and Angelo (Ana) Kouroupi born in nearby Kastania (current Kastori) in Laconia.”
“This photo from 1941 was sent to his brother James before the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” Katsos told TNH.
The Arizona suffered more loss of life than any other ship at Pearl Harbor, with 1,177 dead. More than 900 went down with the ship and have remained entombed there ever since, including George Catsos whose remains have not been recovered, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
As with remains on other sunken ships, the Navy considers those aboard the Arizona to be in their final resting place. The families are not advocating for them to be removed and identified.
The issue is what to do with the 85 Arizona unknowns buried in a Hawaii cemetery. It emerged in February when the director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which is tasked with finding and identifying the remains of U.S. service members from past conflicts, was asked during a Facebook Live meeting when the agency would disinter them.
Kelly McKeague said his agency had spoken to the Navy about exhuming the Arizona unknowns and moving them to the ship without identifying them first. McKeague said it didn’t make “pragmatic sense” to identify them.
That outraged some families who feared the 85 remains would be placed on the sunken battleship without ever being identified.
McKeague told The Associated Press that what he said about identifications not being pragmatic referred to the lack of documentation, not the cost.
“We must apply our limited resources in a manner that is equitable to all families and to do so as efficiently and effectively as possible,” he said in a statement.
The agency, which aims to find more than 80,000 service members missing from World War II and on, has successfully identified unknowns from the USS Oklahoma, another battleship that capsized during the Pearl Harbor bombing.
In 2015, the agency dug up the remains of 388 Oklahoma sailors and Marines from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, the same graveyard where the Arizona unknowns are buried.
It acted after the military drafted a new policy allowing the disinterment of groups of unknown servicemen if it expected to identify at least 60% of the group.
The agency had dental records, age and height information for the vast majority of the Oklahoma unknowns. The military also had family DNA samples for more than 80%.
The agency predicted it would identify 80% of the Oklahoma remains, which were buried comingled in 61 caskets. As of this month, it has identified 344, or 88%, and anticipates naming more.
A group of families led by Randy Stratton, whose father, Donald Stratton, suffered severe burns as a sailor on the Arizona but lived to be 97, has drafted a petition demanding that the agency identify the 85 Arizona unknowns.
He’s vowed to help families submit DNA samples. He’s also been pushing for the agency to use genetic genealogy techniques like those used by law enforcement to solve cold cases.
Stratton said about 30 to 40 families of Arizona unknowns have joined him.
From a scientific perspective, there isn’t much stopping the military from identifying the Arizona remains, said Michael Coble, associate director of the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas.
“It’s definitely going to be a huge undertaking. But I think the technology has evolved that this kind of work could be done,” said Coble, who was chief of research at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory from 2006 to 2010.
The lab, which dates to 1991, has long used DNA to identify remains for the military.
One newer method uses so-called SNPs, which are unique to an individual — except for identical twins — and provide a kind of fingerprint. The lab hasn’t been able to make much use of this technique because it’s been unable to obtain adequate SNP profiles from degraded remains. Last month, however, it completed a project to get those samples.
This technique would help the lab distinguish between individuals even when it’s only able to extract tiny fragments of DNA. SNPs are the same type of DNA sample that services like Ancestry.com and 23andMe use to help match people with long-lost relatives or learn their propensity for certain diseases.
DNA profiles from this technique could theoretically be used for the kind of investigative genetic genealogy work that Stratton advocates.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.