After 60 years, no longer a Pearl Harbor 'unknown'
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By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
Few people have ever asked who was buried in grave C-258. The epitaph on the headstone on the lawn of Punchbowl seemed enough: "Unknown, Dec. 7, 1941."
Advertiser library photo Jan. 30, 2001
In January, Thomas Hembree's remains then marked as "unknown" were disinterred from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific for identification.
Advertiser library photo Jan. 30, 2001
His identification yesterday by the Central Identification Laboratory-Hawaii ends an 11-year effort by Pearl Harbor survivor Ray Emory to solve the mystery.
Forensic experts disinterred the remains from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in January. No other Pearl Harbor casualty at Punchbowl had ever been disturbed. On that day, they also took out three other sets of remains: one believed to be a crewman killed on the USS Arizona during the Japanese attack and two killed during the Korean War.
None of those remains has been identified yet.
Hembree was identified using dental records and by comparing his height and race to the remains, said Ginger Couden, a spokeswoman for the lab.
Emory, an 80-year-old Kahala resident and historian for the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association since 1966, was ecstatic.
"You better believe it," he said yesterday. "I don't know of any World War II casualty from Pearl Harbor that has been identified."
He started working on this around 1990 when he met Hembree's sister, Helen Braidwood, a beautician from Tacoma, Wash.
On the day of the attack, Thomas Hembree had only been at Pearl Harbor for seven days. He was already homesick for Kennewick, Wash. He wrote his mother about the beauty of Hawai'i and his hunger for action.
For five months, Elizabeth Hembree thought her son was still alive.
Tommy, as he was called, was the youngest of her five children. He had blue eyes and a cheeky smile. He was just 17 when he joined the Navy in August 1941, following his two older brothers into service.
Elizabeth received his homesick letter weeks after the Dec. 7 attack. She assumed he was safe.
Then a Navy letter arrived April 15, 1942. Her son was a casualty of the attack.
Elizabeth wrote back, begging for more information. The response was horrific. All the Curtiss crewmen were accounted for except two. Their bodies were burned beyond recognition.
Her son was one of them.
The family got a second shock in 1949. The Navy wanted to know if the Hembrees wanted Thomas' body returned, or should it be buried at a new national cemetery in Punchbowl crater?
They chose to let him rest in Punchbowl.
A few years later, a third surprise: When Braidwood visited the cemetery to mourn her brother she was told he had been buried at sea. She accepted that until 1989 when she asked again.
Although the answer was still the same, a cemetery worker called Emory to see what he knew about Hembree. And so the quest began.
Emory had compiled a catalog of Pearl Harbor dead at Punchbowl including the 252 graves marked "Unknown." He had walked the 18,093 World War II headstones, jotting down each name. After checking military casualty records against cemetery, he knew there were only two sailors missing from the Curtiss: Hembree and Wilson Albert Rice, a 19-year-old seaman first class.
He prodded lab officials for five years with his research and was there in January to watch them bring the remains to the surface.
It was not a moment he could share with Braidwood, however. She passed away in 1999, passing her search for answers to her niece, Beth LaRosa of Seattle.
"I'm extremely excited," LaRosa said yesterday. "There's a lot of emotion."
She said the family would have to discuss what to do next, but it would be nice to re-bury Hembree in Punchbowl.
"We would prefer that," she said.
Reach Mike Gordon at mgor email@example.com or 525-8012.