BY DUANE VACHON – On the morning of December 7th, 1941, Gerald George Lehman was less than a month into his 18th birthday. Lehman was a Fireman Third Class assigned to the battleship USS Oklahoma. It would be 69 years before Lehman would return home to Hancock Michigan.
Lehman, who was killed in action aboard the USS Oklahoma during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, was one of 429 sailors and Marines on the Oklahoma to perish that Sunday morning.
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
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.
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’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.”
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.”
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.
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 said Lehman earned the Purple Heart, WWII Victory Medal, American Defense Service Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the Combat Action ribbon.
In a homily, Fr. George who conducted the funeral mass spoke of Lehman’s return.
“How amazing it is that Jerry wrote letters home and those letters became his path for his coming home,” he said of Lehman’s own nuclear DNA that Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command extracted from the envelopes he had licked.
With that in mind, he emphasized to the younger generations, which tend to use e-mail and other electronic means of communication more frequently than postal mail, to also, send some letters.
Calling Lehman an American hero, Fr. George added, “we thank you, we honor you and we will miss you.”
Duane A Vachon PhD works at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. He is the author of “Gems From The Antipodes: 12 Collections of Faith-Focusing Insights” He also writes a weekly column “in The Big Island Reporter” Reach him at email@example.com