The United States has a proud history of returning the bodies or remains of the men and women killed during combat to their loved ones at home and burying them with full military honors.
For many parents, family members and friends, paying tribute at a gravesite to a loved one with the honor guard folding Old Glory and presenting it to the next of kin and the comforting sound of Taps brings a measure of closure to them and dignity and honor to the soldier being laid to rest. It has long been a tradition in America that nothing less is acceptable for those who died in defense of America’s freedom and way of life.
But Guilford resident Tom Gray’s struggle to have the remains of his cousin, World War II veteran Edwin Hopkins, returned home so he can be buried with military honors and laid to rest alongside his parents — and the military’s stubborn resistance to doing it — threatens to stain that tradition.
It also highlights the challenges America faces once the weapons have been put down and peace treaties signed and the daunting task of accounting for America’s war dead begins.
Hopkins had just turned 19 years old when he was killed along with 408 other sailors when the Japanese torpedoed the USS Oklahoma during the December 1941 strike on Pearl Harbor.
In 1943, when the Oklahoma was salvaged and raised, the remains of the sailors classified as “unknown” were buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii — or the “Punchbowl” — an impressive, beautifully landscaped monument standing as a testament to those who lost their lives during the infamous attack.
Hopkins, who in 1943 originally was buried in Halawa Naval Cemetery, Plot K, Grave 1048, was transferred to the “Punchbowl” in 1949 and is among those designated as “unknown.” His remains are co-mingled in four or five caskets with 22 others who have not been identified.
It’s not an unfamiliar story and, regrettably, a reality of the price of freedom.
But what makes Third Class Fireman Edwin Hopkins’ story unique and has grabbed the attention of 15 U.S. senators, including Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, and we think casts a shameful eye on the military, is that Hopkins’ remains had been identified when he was buried as “unknown.”
But the family did not find that out until 2008.
His parents, Frank and Alice Hopkins, died without answers or being able to formally say goodbye to their son. His brother, Frank Jr., who served on the USS Hornet during WWII, died a month prior to the family being notified about Hopkins.
Now, remaining family members want Hopkins’ remains disinterred so he can be buried in the family plot alongside his mother and father in Keene, New Hampshire.
The military has been stubborn in its resistance.
Sarah Flaherty, lieutenant commander of public affairs for the Department of Defense, previously told the Register the Navy’s position of not exhuming the bodies in the “Punchbowl” was because it did not want to “disturb the sanctity of the graves.”
But we think, in light of the circumstances and though not the optimum choice for the military, its rigid stance on this is unreasonable.
No one questions the armed forces’ desire to identify and bring every soldier home, dead or alive.
We acknowledge that Pearl Harbor was a difficult, chaotic time for the military and it has without question sought to pay tribute to the men and women who fought in that great war. But in Hopkins’ case, the military made a mistake and its time for it to close this chapter with the Hopkins family. It’s been nearly 70 years; the military has no excuse — only shame that it has allowed this mission to go unfulfilled.
There are ugly consequences to war and as Gen. William Sherman once famously declared, “War is hell.”
But for Tom Gray and other members of Edwin Hopkins’ family, the aftermath of war also can be hell.