A touching tribute and service more than 80 years in the making for the family of Francis Bud Hannon.
“My dad was waiting in California. He was in the Army,” explained Hannon’s second cousin Vanessa Helming. “And he and Bud were to take their R&R together. And Bud was at Pearl Harbor, and Dad said as soon as he heard that Pearl Harbor had been hit, he knew that Bud was no longer with us.”
Hannon was one of more than 400 sailors killed onboard the USS Oklahoma…one of the first battleships hit during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Hannon was just 20 years old and two years into his military service.
“It was extreme loss to the family, extreme loss to his parents, my grandparents,” Helming said. “It was just overwhelming.”
Some of Hannon’s remaining relatives traveled to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl from Indiana for closure. He’d been buried here for decades in graves with hundreds of other unknowns recovered from the wreckage of the Oklahoma until 2015. That’s when the military started Project Oklahoma with the goal of using DNA testing to return identified remains to their families.
“For a large project like this, where the remains are really commingled, we have to do a lot of DNA testing,” said Carrie Legarde, a project lead for Project Oklahoma. “And so that’s where we need family members involvement, because we need a DNA refrence sample from that family that we can compare to the remains.”
The process takes time and involves labs across the country. For this project initial processing was done at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency lab at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, then further analysis at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, and DNA testing at the Armed Forces Laboratory in Dover Delaware.
“And they provide us that information to help us kind of piece together the remains basically, it’s kind of like a big puzzle that we have to put together and sort out,” Legarde said. “And once we can figure out which remains go together, we can figure out who they belong to.”
Officials started with 394 service members unaccounted for. They hoped to identify 80% of them but ended up identifying 361 sailors, more than 90%.
“It made it really exciting to get, as far as we did, of course, I’d love to identify all of them,” Legarde said. “And it’s a little bit heartbreaking in a way to have some that we couldn’t. But we, you know, we surpassed what we thought we could do. And so that’s pretty amazing.”
Amazing for families who never thought they’d be here, giving a loved one a final resting place.
“It really helps re-establishing faith in the government and the military and it’s fantastic,” said Thom Reddington, one of Hannon’s second cousins. “Something like this, I would never have believed and it’s just so exciting.”
“The most rewarding part of what we do is being able to talk to families or go to a burial, and see that all the way to the end,” said Legarde. “And I think it helps kind of give you a boost in what we do, and a good reminder of how important this is and how, how meaningful it is to the families.”
In December 2021 on the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the military held a final reinternment ceremony for the remaining 33 unidentified USS Oklahoma sailors.
“I escorted the remains from Nebraska on that C-17 to Hawaii. And then we had a big ceremony here when they arrived here, and that was that was also really cool for me to be able to do. I was able to kind of see them once again to the end,” said Legarde. “It’s kind of making me emotional right now. But you know, I got to escort them here, and then come back for the ceremony and so see them kind of all the way back to their final resting place.”
A reminder that no service member is forgotten.
“As a veteran, it has significance for me because we understand what the families go through and we understand what it means to them,” said Gene Maestas of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl. “So it’s very important for us to make sure that we can assist in our way to provide this final closure.”
The military also has projects underway to identify other unknown service members from Pearl Harbor, as well as the Korean War and several other World War II battles.