Murphy demands action on Connecticut sailor’s remains buried as ‘unknown’

By:  Register Staff
New Haven Register

WASHINGTON >> Third Class Fireman Edwin Hopkins was killed in 1941 during the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor, but his remains, designated as unknown by the Navy, are buried in a casket in Hawaii along with the remains of five other “unknown” veterans — and his family along with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy and other officials want him home.

Hopkins is among 22 veterans whose remains are classified as “unknown” and co-mingled and buried in four to five caskets in what is known as the “Punchbowl” in Hawaii.

But the late sailor’s cousin, Guilford resident Tom Gray, said Hopkins’ remains were identified in 1943 but the families did not find out until 2008 and they have been fighting ever since to bring him home.

“It’s a shame to leave him buried there as unknown. He deserves better than that,” Gray said. “We want them brought home and buried with military honors, which is what should happen.”

Murphy on Thursday called on the U.S. Department of Defense to act on its commitment to help recover the bodies of the 22 men, including Hopkins, who lost their lives aboard the USS Oklahoma during the attack on Pearl Harbor. In March, Murphy and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, both D-Conn., and others sent a letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, asking for the identification of soldiers’ remains for not only Gray, but for 21 other families. U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-3, also got involved.

In response to the previous correspondence, the DOD committed to review the case and help families of those lost in the attack bring their loved ones home for burial in their community, or a marked grave in Hawaii. It has been more than eight months since the initial request and the department has still failed to act.

The 22 men were killed, along with 408 other sailors, when the USS Oklahoma was torpedoed during the attack 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.” For nearly 70 years, the family members of these men never knew the final resting place of their loved ones.

Hopkins was 19 when he was killed. Gray’s family hopes to bury Hopkins in the family plot in Keene, New Hampshire, his hometown. Gray obtained documentation showing Hopkins’ remains were recovered and buried in the Halawa Naval Cemetery, Plot K, Grave 1048, in 1943. In 1949, it was recommended Hopkins’ “unknown” remains be transferred to another gravesite, the “Punchbowl.”

The Department of Defense was not available for comment Thursday.

In a previous story, Sarah Flaherty, lieutenant commander of public affairs for the DoD, told the Register the Navy’s position of not exhuming the bodies was because it “did not want to disturb the sanctity of the graves.”

According to Flaherty, “That’s still the case.”

“The grave has been disturbed a number of times,” she said. “We don’t want to keep doing that.”

But Gray said “the remains of five sailors were identified and returned to their families in 2002. We want the same treatment for my cousin.”

Flaherty has said the Navy understands the concerns of family members, but options had to be weighed.

“The secretary of the Army, as the interment authority for the unknowns associated with USS Oklahoma, is the final approval authority for any future disinterment of remains associated with USS Oklahoma. The Department of the Navy, along with the Department of the Army and other members of the personnel accounting community, are members of a Defense POW / Missing Personnel Office-led working group established to determine the feasibility of disinterring and individually identifying the unknown remains associated with USS Oklahoma,” Flaherty said in an email.

Gray said he can appreciate “someone’s feelings about letting a grave rest in peace. That’s OK. (But) they didn’t live the experience. Their families didn’t go through the angst and anguish of never knowing what happened to their family.”

He said not all families whose loved ones are buried in the “Punchbowl” are asking the military to return the remains, only that the remains be identified and given a proper burial.

Gray said Hopkins’ sacrifice was recognized in his hometown, where an oil painting of the late sailor hangs on a wall inside the Keene Dillant Hopkins Airport, which is named after him and another local veteran who died in combat.

Gray said Hopkins’ death and the aftermath is an “open wound” for family members.

“It’s not unknown where he is,” Gray said. “We want him here. We want him buried next to his mother and father.”

Here is the full text of Murphy’s letter:

Dear Secretary Hagel:

I am writing to follow up on the March 6th letter signed by me and 14 of my Senate colleagues regarding the remains of the service members who lost their lives on the USS Oklahoma on December 7th, 1941. It has been 8 months and we have received no information from your office regarding the return of their remains, which is required for their proper burials.

In his April 9, 2014, reply, Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Lumpkin made assurances that he had “discussed this matter” with you and “directed a review of the accounting of service members killed while serving on the Oklahoma.” I would like to receive an update on the status of this review and any plans for the disinterment of the unknowns from the USS Oklahoma as soon as possible.

Furthermore, we have heard from confused and concerned constituents that the Navy is considering plans to bury these deceased service members in a mass grave on Ford Island. The prospect of such a plan is troubling and disconcerting; why would the Navy go through the exercise of asking the families if they want their loved ones disinterred and identified only to bury them together on Ford Island? The brave men who died protecting our great nation at Pearl Harbor deserve a final resting place of their families’ choosing. I reiterate my request that their remains be released to their family so that they may be interred according to their wishes.

Please update me with any developments in this matter. Thank you for your service to this country.

Sincerely,

Christopher S. Murphy

United States Senator