One night last August, Bethany Glenn stood on a tarmac in Colorado Springs, waiting for a plane. Around her neck, she wore a picture of her grandfather, John Charles England.
The photo was a black-and-white portrait of England in his Navy ensign’s uniform. Glenn had found it in a box of her great-grandmother’s belongings, and she’d started wearing it from time to time when she wanted to feel closer to her grandfather, a feeling that had brought her to the airport that night.
Glenn didn’t know her grandfather personally; she never had the chance. He died in the attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941. England had been on the U.S.S. Oklahoma, and he disappeared while returning to the sinking ship to save his fellow sailors.
For the past 12 years, Glenn had been researching England’s life to find out more about the man behind the heroic story. She talked to friends and visited his old school. She learned he loved to dance, so she decided to wear his portrait when she went to concerts. Yet one mystery remained—where was his body?
England was one of 388 Oklahoma sailors whose remains were recovered, commingled, and interred as unknowns in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific—nicknamed the Punchbowl—in the 1940s. Hundreds more from other ships were buried there, too.
But last August, as she waited on the tarmac, Glenn knew exactly where her grandfather’s remains were. They were in a flag-draped coffin aboard a plane, and they would soon be buried next to England’s parents. And with them, too, would be the ashes of Glenn’s mother, England’s daughter, who had been born a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and who England had never lived to see.
“When they opened up the plane and the casket came out with the flag on it, that’s when I got this overwhelming feeling of, Wow, this is actually really happening, and just every emotion you can think of, happiness, and a little bit of sadness, because I wish my great-grandparents could’ve been there,” Glenn says.
The identification of England out of hundreds of unknowns was a remarkable feat. And it’s one that’s been repeated dozens more times, thanks to a combination of DNA science, records analysis, and the dogged efforts of Pearl Harbor survivors and families. England’s reburial wouldn’t have been possible without DNA analysis done by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), a military agency formed out of two other agencies in 2015. But the unknown grave England was buried in would’ve likely never been opened if it weren’t for Navy veteran Ray Emory.
Under other circumstances, Emory might’ve been in the Punchbowl with England, but he survived the attack and the war, and has dedicated years of his life to identifying the unknowns. Emory has sent hundreds of letters to the Department of Defense. And he’s never taken no for an answer.
In 2008, Emory had a break. He found a document stating that 27 causalities had been identified by dental records after Pearl Harbor, but were buried as unknowns. With this information, Emory called Bob Valley. Valley’s brother was among the 388 Oklahoma unknowns, and he and Emory had met through events for Oklahoma survivors and families. Emory asked Valley to help him contact the families of the 27 unknowns on the document he’d found, and see if they would join the efforts to identify unknowns, a process that would require giving a DNA sample and writing a lot of letters.
“We started putting the pressure on having the family members contact their representatives,” Valley says.
Eventually, the efforts worked and the DoD agreed to disinter the 27. But that led to more complications. The 27 had been buried in four different graves. “Some of them had five in a casket, some had 10 in a casket,” Valley says. That set off another process of DNA analysis to identify the other unknowns.
So far, Emory’s efforts have led to 30 of the 388 Oklahoma unknowns being identified and reburied with full military honors. For the remaining 350, “our goal is to identify about 80 percent in the next three to five years,” says Staff Sergeant Kristin Duus with the DPAA.
One of the yet-to-be-identified sailors might be Bob Valley’s brother. But he says that’s not the only thing driving him to continue to help Emory and identify unknowns.
“I’m doing this because I believe family members have a right to know what happened and get some closure,” Valley says. “My parents got a telegram on December 20 saying [my brother] was missing in action. The next telegram, and the only other telegram they got, was on my birthday, February 20, 1942, saying he had lost his life. That’s all they ever got.”
For Glenn, knowing her grandfather is home has given her the closure she wishes her mother and her great-grandparents could’ve had. “It’s been unbelievable for our family,” she says. “None of this would’ve happened without Ray.”