DNA from letters home helps ID Pearl Harbor casualty
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
Before he died at Pearl Harbor, less than a month after turning 18, Gerald Lehman sent home to Michigan letters that his mother came to treasure.
In them, the teen talked about going through Navy training in Great Lakes, Ill. — falling out of his sleeping hammock once — and how much he liked his new woolen uniform.
In graceful penmanship, he asked about the family dog, Duke; wrote about waiting to ship out from California on the battleship USS Oklahoma; and seeing the mountains and rainbows of O'ahu from the doomed ship.
Unknowingly, Lehman sent home to those who loved him something else, something that wouldn't be useful until decades later: his own DNA.
Sixty-eight years after he was killed on Dec. 7, 1941, DNA lifted from the envelopes Lehman had licked helped the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command positively identify the young sailor's remains.
Lehman had been buried as an "unknown" at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl. His journey home began with research by a Pearl Harbor survivor and inquiries into the death of the Navy fireman third class by his niece, Peggy Germain.
Germain remembers getting a phone call in 2006 from the Michigan volunteer coordinator of a USS Oklahoma group saying remains tentatively identified as her uncle had been found.
"I began crying and calling for my husband to hear the news," she said.
U.S. casualties affairs representatives made an official visit to her home on March 3 of this year.
It had been the "dearest wish" of her mother, who died in 2005, to get her baby brother back for burial, she said.
Germain said her uncle's remains will receive a military escort from Hawai'i to Michigan in June.
Lehman's identification followed a circuitous path, culminating with the Hawai'i-based accounting command using nuclear DNA from the letters home, a challenging approach that has been used fewer than 10 times since 2006, according to the lab.
Mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from each person's mother, is routinely used by the lab, known as JPAC and based at Hickam Air Force Base, to help make identifications of service members recovered from past wars.
Nuclear DNA is inherited from each person's mother and father, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, more copies of mitochondrial DNA in each cell, officials said.
"When you are looking at old skeletal remains, DNA breaks down over time," said Alexander Christensen, DNA coordinator for the accounting command. "If you start out with 500 times as much mitochondrial DNA as nuclear DNA, then logically after 70 years, you've still got a lot more mitochondrial DNA."
WHY NUCLEAR DNA?
The nuclear DNA identification method was taken because it turned out Lehman had a common sequence of mitochondrial DNA that could have been shared with other sailors on the Oklahoma.
Germain had talked to her mother about the family's loss, and then set out to do a documentary film about Lehman after her mother's death in 2005.
"In 2006 I wanted to honor her by doing something — so I thought I'd write about her baby brother and bring him back to life through my writing," she said by phone from Michigan.
Her mother and grandparents had always been told Lehman's body was unrecoverable after the Oklahoma was torpedoed in Pearl Harbor.
The ship rolled over at its mooring, taking 429 of its crew along as it capsized. Gerald George Lehman was one of the lost sailors.
The wiry, 5-foot-6 Lehman had wanted to be a pilot. He graduated from high school at 17, but because he was too young to get into college, "he thought he'd serve his country and then things would fall into place," Germain said.
He was a talented craftsman who made beautiful furniture, she said.
His father, Harry, had to sign for him to enlist in the Navy, "but it was peacetime, so (my) grandpa told my grandma not to worry," his niece said.
"My mother always said his (my grandfather's) hair turned white overnight" after his son's death, Germain said. "He was just shattered that he signed and ended up being responsible for his son dying."
The family saved 64 letters mailed between the time Lehman went to Naval Station Great Lakes for training and his death on the Oklahoma.
"He was so happy," Germain said. "He though the Navy uniforms were the best and that the wool was the finest and that the guys were swell. Everything was 'swell,' but he'd ask, 'Am I a forgotten man? Does anybody ask about me?' So he must have been homesick."
The sailor's parents received a letter from their son talking about Thanksgiving, but by Dec. 13, 1941 — six days after the Pearl Harbor attack — had not learned his fate.
Harry and Delia Lehman wrote to their son on that date, saying: "News is scarce, but keep courage as here in the U.S. of A. we are all for all of you boys that are doing everything for freedom's sake as that (the Japanese attack) was about as low of a trick ever that was done to any country."
A SURVIVOR'S HELP
Germain obtained her uncle's military "deceased personnel" file, and was surprised to discover that he was, in fact, buried with other commingled remains at Punchbowl.
She learned much of the information as a result of efforts by Kāhala resident and Pearl Harbor survivor Ray Emory, who researches "unknowns.".
Emory, 88, who has been investigating the "unknowns" at Punchbowl for about 20 years, gathered information on Oklahoma casualty Eldon Wyman and in 2003 took that evidence to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.
The burial was exhumed and found to contain remains from five sailors and more than 90 others. Five individuals now have been identified from the grave, including Lehman.
Germain found out about Emory's success in 2006, through a USS Oklahoma association.
There are 22 other Oklahoma casualties for which Emory has information. He said he'd like to see those graves exhumed as well.
In Lehman's case, a dental chart and a mitochondrial DNA comparison were still not enough to make a positive identification, so JPAC turned to nuclear DNA, officials said. The DNA work is done by the Armed Forces DNA Laboratory in Rockville, Md.
Germain's cousin, Barbara Herres, had kept letters sent by Lehman, and nuclear DNA was extracted from saliva used to seal the letters.
"They (the lab in Maryland) are building the capacity to do (nuclear DNA testing) more routinely, but we're still developing that capacity," said Christensen, who's with the JPAC lab in Hawai'i.
The Maryland lab made a mitochondrial match with Lehman's sister, and then used nuclear DNA for a positive ID.
"Following the success of this, I have told the casualty offices of the Navy that I would love to have more envelopes from Oklahoma crew members," Christensen said. "The way this ID worked out, it sets a great precedent that I would love to be able to maintain."