This Sunday marks the 73rd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Thousands of Americans died that day, including over 400 sailors aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma. Guilford resident Tom Gray and his family thought their relative, Edwin Hopkins, was one of the missing.
Hopkins was Tom Gray's second cousin, part of a large family from New Hampshire. Gray never met him, but he knows a lot about him.
Gray recalled the painful story in his family's history. "When you grow up with it and you feel the angst in the house when it comes up, it's something that won't go away," he said.
Hopkins was 18 years old when he enlisted in the Navy. He died just a year later, in 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He was a fireman on the battleship, and was likely below deck when the Oklahoma was torpedoed.
Because Hopkins was missing in action, his mother never fully absorbed the news, believing that he had amnesia, and would one day come home. Gray said she held onto that hope until she died. "Part of the sadness of this is that neither of his parents ever realized he was discovered," he said. "His brother was 90 when he died in February of 2008, and we [got] the call in March."
That call was from a member of an organization made up of the families of sailors who died aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma.
The member told Gray's cousin, Faye Hopkins Boar, about research by a Pearl Harbor veteran. The veteran, Ray Emory, discovered that 27 sailors who were buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (the Punchbowl) and listed as Unknown had actually been identified by the Navy in 1943. Edwin Hopkins was one of them.
The U.S. Navy opened a casket in 2003, and returned five sailors to their families. Since then, it has refused additional requests, saying it doesn't want to disturb any more graves.
At his Guilford home, Gray leafed through a thick green binder filled with information about the 27 sailors. "What is on here is the actual reports from the Navy," he said.
Since 2008, Gray and his cousin, Hopkins Boar, have been collecting the declassified information and pages of correspondence between his family and the Navy, including details about the graves. He pointed to a copy of a handwritten diagram from the late 1940s.
"This is a list," Gray said. "P-1003, the exact grave where my cousin is buried -- there are two caskets in that grave site. There are five individuals in that casket. We know all of the names of the people that are in there with him."
One of them is Kenneth Jane, also a Fireman Third Class who served on the U.S.S. Oklahoma. His nephew, Long Island resident Kenneth Schultz, was named after him.
"Everybody in our family believed he had perished," Schultz said. "It was just completely amazing to go all these years without knowing this, and then finding this information out."
Gray and Schultz have joined other members of the Oklahoma family who have been writing the U.S. Navy, asking for the identified remains to be disinterred, and sent back to those families who want them.
The Navy opened up one of those caskets in 2003, and returned five sailors to their families. Since then, the Navy has refused additional requests, saying it doesn't want to disturb any more graves.
Last year, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy heard Gray's story, and led a coalition of senators to request that the family's wishes be honored.
Murphy said he heard back from the Department of Defense that there would be a review, but the families have heard nothing since. "I'm glad the Department of Defense is being very careful about this," he said. "No one should take lightly the issue of exhuming remains and identifying them -- but for far too long, you have a set of families who aren't able to visit their loved ones' graves, and we can solve that."
The senator is asking the DOD to give the families an answer by the end of this year.
Gray said he isn't giving up, either. He reads from one of several letters he has sent to the Navy. "Our family has done all that it's been asked in service to this country, including sacrificing a beloved 18-year-old boy," he said. "My family and I feel we owe it to my cousin not to give up, just as you owe it to all 22 unknown sailors to fulfill your responsibility to bring these heroes home."
The families say they deserve to give their relatives a proper burial.
Navy Commander Amy Derrick-Frost of the Department of Defense responded to a request for comment with the following statement:
"The review is still underway. As part of the review, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (USD(P)) and the Department of the Navy (DON) are in active discussions on how best to fulfill our Nation's commitment to those who perished aboard the Oklahoma and their families. We expect a decision on the matter early next year."