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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, August 5, 2006

WWII graves to get new markers

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer

Ray Emory

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Ray Emory has won his fight to change the inscriptions on 36 "unknown" grave markers at Punchbowl of sailors killed in the West Loch naval ship explosions during World War II.

"The cemetery director will order new markers to replace the existing stones marking the graves of these 36 unknown sailors," said R. James Nicholson, U.S. secretary of veterans affairs, in a letter to Congressman Ed Case, D-Ha-wai'i, this week.

Nicholson's letter reversed an earlier decision on the issue.

Emory, the 85-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor who has devoted much of his time to researching burial records, is pleased by the decision. The 36 grave markers at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific mark the final resting place of men killed on May 21, 1944, but whose remains could not be identified. They were among 163 killed when a Navy tank-landing ship packed with fuel and munitions exploded, starting a chain reaction of blasts and fires that would sink six ships.

"Out of the 36, there are five of them that have the wrong date and 15 have no date," he said. All 36 markers do not identify that they were killed in the West Loch section of Pearl Harbor.

"If I got killed in combat and they found my body, I'd sure like to have on my grave marker what ship I was on, what battle I fought in, and the date of death I died on to protect this country," said Emory, who was aboard the USS Honolulu on Dec. 7, 1941.

The National Cemetery Administration had previously told Emory that policy allows only replacement markers if an identification is made, if there was a mistake or if there is excessive wear or damage.

Punchbowl director Gene Castagnetti was out of town and unavailable yesterday. He previously has opposed updating "unknown" grave markers with what he calls "circumstances of death" because, he said, it does not lend anything to the identification of remains. Castagnetti also had questioned where the inscription changes would stop.

About 3,000 of the 35,000-plus graves at Punchbowl fall into the "unknown" category, said Punchbowl public affairs specialist Jim Messner.

Emory estimated that more information could be added to about half of the unknown markers.

Changing the West Loch markers does not set a precedent, he said. Twice before in recent years, first through the efforts of the late Rep. Patsy Mink and then Case, her successor, grave markers of Pearl Harbor war dead have been changed to include date and ship information.

Emory also disagrees with Castagnetti's assessment. "If a military cemetery isn't a place of history, what is it?" he asked.

Case said he asked the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs to come up with a solution. "The VA did the right thing, and it's just a good example of how things can actually happen when you set your mind to it," he said.

Advertiser staff writer William Cole contributed to this report.

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com.