Weekly Column

Dec 07 2020

Everyday Heroes

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79 years after they lost their lives during the attack on Pearl Harbor, two young men are coming home. 

A moving article in the December 7 Omaha World-Herald tells the story of Fireman 1st Class Louis Tushla and Seaman 2nd Class Charles Alan Jones, two Nebraskans who were serving on the USS Oklahoma when the attack began. Their ship capsized, and they and hundreds of other crewmembers were trapped below decks. All told, 2,403 sailors, marines, and civilians gave their lives for their country that day.

Tushla and Jones were among the majority of Pearl Harbor casualties whose identities couldn’t be determined during World War II. The remains of those who could be identified were sent home to their families for funerals, but Jones and Tushla were buried in Hawaii, in graves that simply read “Unknown.”

But today, their families have closure thanks to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, a Department of Defense agency that was formed in 2015 to recover prisoners of war and other soldiers who went missing in action during past conflicts. The DPAA is headquartered in Washington, DC, but their two main laboratories are at Offutt Air Force Base in Sarpy County. The agency also maintains a lab at Joint Base Pearl Harbor.

The DPAA uses technologies that weren’t available in 1941 to identify our fallen heroes. At the recovery site, anthropologists lead excavations that can last as long as 60 days and cover areas larger than a football field. Excavators screen the soil inch by inch, looking for any remains to bring to their labs in Nebraska or Hawaii.

Back in the lab, another team of scientists, including a forensic anthropologist and the agency medical examiner, analyzes what they’ve found. The scientists use several techniques to identify remains, but rely on DNA evidence in about three-quarters of cases.

Altogether, more than 30 highly trained scientists make the DPAA the largest skeletal identification laboratory in the world. Their work gives closure to families who were previously unable to give their loved ones the proper burial they deserved.

In 2018, I was proud to author a bipartisan amendment that gave the DPAA a further $10 million in funding. It passed Congress later that year.

Charles Alan Jones’ and Louis Tushla’s remains will soon be reunited with their families thanks to the incredible people at the DPAA. 79 years after the events of Pearl Harbor, we should take a moment to be thankful for all they’ve done. 

We should be thankful, too, for Ed Guthrie, Nebraska’s last living veteran of Pearl Harbor. He was reading a comic book on the deck of the USS Whitney when the raid started. He was just 23 years old at the time. He turned 102 this year.

According to the Omaha World-Herald, Guthrie spent the days after the attack helping recover bodies from the water in the harbor. By making sure they made it home for a proper burial, Ed brought closure to their families, just as the DPAA does today.

As we mark the 79th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I encourage all Nebraskans to reflect on Nebraska’s legacy of service – on the brave men like Ed who demonstrated the best of our nation in her darkest hour. We should also remember the remarkable work happening right in our state to identify American heroes so they can be honored properly.

In a year of loss, crisis, and chaos, it’s people and stories like these that remind us of who we are and what makes our country great.

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.