View Full Version : Decades later, servicemen laid to rest thanks to DNA advances

rock hunter
05-29-2016, 10:14 PM
Decades later, servicemen laid to rest thanks to DNA advances

U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Leonard Unger finally came home to St. Clair, in Franklin County, nearly 64 years after his cargo plane crashed into a mountain in Alaska.

And it took even longer for Herbert Hoard to be laid to rest in Jefferson County, 74 years after being declared missing following the Japanese air assault on Pearl Harbor.

The families of both men have DNA technology to thank, efforts that continue to bring servicemen to their loved ones decades after their deaths.

“I never knew it would happen,” said Unger’s sister, Theresa Boland, 81, of New Haven.

She was 18 when a cargo plane carrying her brother, 37 at the time, crashed into a mountain and slid down into a glacier in Alaska in 1952. The plane’s wreckage was discovered in 2012, and Unger’s remains were later identified through DNA. Earlier this month, he was buried in St. Clair.

“All I wanted to say is, ‘Mom, we finally got him home,’ because she wanted him to come home so bad,” Boland said. “She prayed and prayed. I told her when she died I would continue praying and maybe we could get him here. So this is the result of praying.”

Elbert Hoard, 87, also wasn’t expecting to attend a funeral for his lost relative.

He was 12 when he learned that Uncle Herbert, the chief storekeeper on board the battleship Oklahoma, was missing. The ship was struck by nine torpedoes and quickly overturned in the opening minutes of the sneak attack.

The battleship USS Oklahoma in the 1930s. The ship was commissioned in 1916 and sunk at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, with a loss of 429 crew members. (US Navy photo)

On May 21 remains of Uncle Herbert were reburied next to the graves of his parents at Victoria Cemetery in Jefferson County.

Elbert Hoard, now 87, was among the far-flung relatives who attended. How that came to pass is a story of one veteran’s tenacity, a change of heart by military brass and advances in DNA matching.
Getting them back

Herbert Hoard of Pevely was in the Navy during the Depression. He cruised home on leave in a Ford coupe and dazzled his family with tales of life at sea.

“We thought he was something special,” said Elbert Hoard. “He gave us rides in the rumble seat. He could afford to buy me my glasses. Once he brought home a lamp from some faraway port with naked ladies on it. My mom didn’t like that.”

Anchored at Pearl Harbor’s battleship row, the stricken Oklahoma rolled over and sank quickly. Rescue workers scrambling atop the upside-down hull could hear desperate hammering below. They freed 32 men by cutting into the ship, but 429 of the Oklahoma’s 1,300 sailors and Marines perished.

Only the battleship Arizona, which blew up near the Oklahoma, killing 1,177, lost more crew members on Dec. 7, 1941.

Salvage workers standing atop the USS Oklahoma after it sank during the raid upon Pearl Harbor. (US Navy photo)
photo courtesy OF u.s. navy

Back then, the Navy identified fewer than three dozen killed on the Oklahoma. Two years later, salvage workers righted the crippled hulk and gathered skeletal remains from its hold. Bones from 388 still-missing crewmen were compiled in 61 caskets and, in 1950, buried together in the Punchbowl, the national military cemetery in Honolulu.

Hoard said the Navy contacted the family last year and requested DNA samples from Herbert Hoard’s mother’s side. They found a distant relative in Florida who agreed to help. Hoard said the match was confirmed in March.

The casket was flown to St. Louis for a service Saturday at Diettrich-Mothershead Funeral Home in De Soto, led by the Rev. Dylan Schrader, a Catholic priest and a great-great-nephew. A Navy honor guard and members of veterans groups participated in burial in the small country cemetery two miles north of De Soto.

So far, forensic specialists at the Defense Department’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency have identified remains of Hoard and 27 others from the Oklahoma since the graves were exhumed last August. A fellow crewman was buried Tuesday in eastern Kansas. Lt. Col. Holly Slaughter, a spokeswoman, said the hope is to identify at least 85 percent of the jumble of bones from the Oklahoma over the next five years.

Since the 1970s, the military has put names to the remains of 2,176 formerly unidentified personnel killed in combat, Slaughter said. Refinements in DNA matching have eased the task. In the past three years, teams have identified nearly 200 remains, including 50 from World War II.

The Accounting Agency deals only in combat deaths. The Air Force identified Unger’s remains.

In 1998, DNA was used to identify Air Force Lt. Michael J. Blassie of St. Louis, whose A-37 light bomber was shot down in South Vietnam in 1972. Partial remains found near the crash site five months later were used to represent the Vietnam War at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. Blassie was reburied at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.

The Navy initially resisted disturbing the graves of the Oklahoma unknowns because it regarded the Punchbowl memorial as fitting tribute. But former sailor Ray Emory, 94, who lives near Honolulu and served on a cruiser during the Pearl Harbor raid, pushed the Navy to reopen the case. That led to interest among other families and members of Congress. In August, the Defense Department announced it would identify the Oklahoma unknowns “as expeditiously as possible.”

Hoard’s identity might have been announced in 1949 but for a disagreement among forensics specialists. Some thought there was enough of a jaw to declare it, but the chief pathologist objected. The Navy’s announcement on May 12 about Hoard noted that DNA and “dental comparisons” were used to identify him.

With 2,403 Americans killed at Pearl Harbor and the country suddenly at war, Hoard’s fate received little mention back then. A Post-Dispatch article four days after the attack included a paragraph saying Hoard, a sailor for 18 years, was missing while “on a ship in Pacific waters” — a vague reference typical of the time. “His mother last heard from him late in November,” it said.

Salvage effort in 1943 raises the USS Oklahoma, sunk during the raid upon Pearl Harbor. It later was sold for srap and sank for good in 1947 while being towed to San Francisco. (US Navy photo)

The Navy declared him dead the following May with no further detail. Herbert Hoard was 36.

His ship, stripped of its 14-inch guns, was sold for scrap and sank for good while being towed to San Francisco in 1947.
‘This was a dream’

Leonard Unger grew up in Overland, the oldest of eight children in a Catholic family. When he went into the military, his family moved to Gerald because his mother wanted to live in the country.

Unger served in the Army in World War II and made a career of the Air Force because he loved airplanes.

U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Leonard Unger, 37, was killed on Nov. 22, 1952 when his cargo plane crashed into a mountain in Alaska. Decades later, his remains were recovered and identified and he was buried on Saturday, May 21, 2016. (family photo)

Boland was the youngest sibling, and her brother was also her godfather. She remembers him taking her out for drives when he was on leave. “He loved me very much, I know,” she said.

He was among the 41 passengers and 11 crew members killed when the C-124A Globemaster crashed about 40 miles east of Anchorage on Nov. 22, 1952. Unger was a specialist mechanic and was not supposed to be on the flight. Another airman assigned to the mission was getting married and Unger volunteered to go in that soldier’s place.

“It just goes to show the type of man he was,” said Sylvester Boland, 82, Boland’s husband. Sylvester Boland met Unger once, when the airman was home on leave, shortly before the crash.

“He was a really happy-go-lucky guy,” said Sylvester Boland. “And he was just so easy to get along with. He was a type of guy that everybody could love. I was really impressed with him.”

Military teams tried to recover the wreckage several times soon after the plane crash but were stopped by bad weather. It eventually became buried in the glacier. In 2012, the wreckage was discovered by an Alaska Army National Guard helicopter during a training mission.

The Air Force asked for DNA from family members, who heard nothing more until about two months ago, when they learned Unger’s remains had been identified.

Raymond Unger, 69, of St. Clair, was 5 when his dad was killed. He has few memories of him. His mom, Geneva, remarried and did not have any more children. Raymond Unger grew up hearing stories about his father and joined the Air Force himself, serving for 20 years.

“The fact that I didn’t know my father that well, that is something that probably helps me, you know?” he said. “But on the other hand, I’m glad to get him back here and get him buried.”

Family members received Unger’s remains at the airport and he was buried May 21 with full military honors. The six-mile road from Russell Colonial Funeral Home in St. Clair to Crestview Memorial Park Cemetery was lined with flags. The motorcycle group Patriot Guard Riders escorted the body to the cemetery.

Unger is buried next to his wife and her second husband, Michael. He is survived by two brothers, Edward Unger of Foley and Bill Unger of St. Louis County.

“It was very, very hard,” said Theresa Boland about the decades of waiting and not knowing. “We didn’t think we would ever get him back. So this was a dream, to have him back home.”