2 brothers who died on USS Oklahoma will finally get individual grave markers

An aerial view of salvage operations on the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor. (U.S. Navy/Released)

Growing up in rural Indiana, brothers Harold and William Trapp and their sister, Irene, were inseparable.

“My mother’s family lived in the country, so there weren’t a lot of other people around, ” said Carol Sowar, Irene’s daughter. “So my mom and her two brothers were like three peas in a pod and were really, really close. They did everything together all their lives.”

It was a relationship cut short on Dec. 7, 1941.

Harold, 24, and William, 23—both serving on the USS Oklahoma—were killed in the onslaught of Japanese planes that pummeled their battleship with nine torpedoes, piercing its side even as it began to roll over in Pearl Harbor.

A total of 429 men were killed in the second-greatest loss of life from that day of infamy. Just 32 crew were rescued. The USS Arizona had the most casualties at 1, 177.

The Trapp brothers grew up together, joined the Navy together, died on the same ship, and on June 15, they will be buried together at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl with military honors.

Their 80-year journey back to reunification took them from the dark days after the Pearl Harbor attack when identification of many of the mangled remains was impossible, to interment at Punchbowl as “unknowns ” in caskets with commingled remains, to identification in late 2020 with advances in science, including the use of DNA.

The Defense POW /MIA Accounting Agency, which searches for, recovers and identifies missing American war dead around the world, is ending a six-year effort to identify USS Oklahoma unknowns that in 2015 led to the disinterment of 388 crew members from Punchbowl and identification of at least 332 of them.

As a result of that mission, and for the first time, Fire Controlman 2nd Class Harold Trapp and Electrician’s Mate 3rd Class William Trapp will have their names and Navy service on separate grave markers.

In the rare circumstance where two brothers are being memorialized, one casket will be buried above the other so Harold and William Trapp remain together forevermore.

The importance of that recognition is something that still brings Sowar, herself now 70, to tears.

“I think it’s the feeling that, well, if they are just commingled (remains ), it gives this feeling that there wasn’t any respect—even if there was a ceremony and everything when they died, ” said the Albuquerque, N.M., resident. “It feels like … there wasn’t any love being shown to them at that time.”

They “deserve the honors because they were heroes. They went to their stations and they died, ” she said.

This Memorial Day—a holiday set aside to honor those who died in service to the nation, and coming so close to the burial of her uncles—has brought renewed emotion for Sowar and her family.

“I think it’s more special this year just because they have been identified and you have this feeling of—peace, ” she said.

For the accounting agency, “every day is a Memorial Day of sorts for us, because what we do and what we are responsible to do in fulfilling this obligation is something that we do dutifully, ” said Director Kelly McKeague, a retired two-star general.

On Wednesday, DPAA will hold an “Honorable Carry ” ceremony at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, where it has a big identification lab, to render honors to USS Oklahoma crew member remains that so far haven’t been identified or are additional bones after an ID was made, and are being returned from a lab at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska.

A dozen of more identifications still could be possible through November, said deputy lab director Debra Prince Zinni.

The remains that are not identified will be reinterred at Punchbowl on Dec. 7, the 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack and where they rested as unknowns between the late 1940s and disinterment in 2015, the accounting agency said.

The anniversary date of the Oklahoma losses also will mark the end of the ambitious effort to exhume and identify all of the remaining crew at Punchbowl—388 in all—from 62 caskets. Forty-one out of the 429 fatalities were previously identified.

DPAA’s predecessor organization, the Joint POW /MIA Accounting Command, as far back as 2003 had discussed taking the unprecedented step of exhuming all of the Oklahoma unknowns, officials said. By 2013 the command was actively pursuing the big project to help it reach a congressionally mandated 200 identifications a year.

It has exhumed casualties from the USS West Virginia and USS California and the 1943 Battle of Tarawa, and hundreds from the Korean War for identification.

It’s now planning to disinter from Punchbowl about 400 World War II service members buried as unknowns who died as prisoners of war on Japanese transport ships including the Enoura Maru, with conditions so bad they were dubbed “hellships.”

Nearly 82, 000 Americans remain missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Gulf Wars and other conflicts, with 75 % of the losses located in the Indo-Pacific. Between 25, 000 and 35, 000 are believed to be recoverable.

DNA comparisons are made to family reference samples as one tool to make identifications. In 2020 the USS Oklahoma Project had completed mitochondrial DNA sequencing of more than 5, 000 samples. On Jan. 28 of this year, the 300th ID was made.

Harold Trapp was born in December 1916, and William a little over a year later in January 1918, Sowar said. They were very close but different. Harold was studious and wanted to be an engineer ; William liked doing things with his hands.

“William wanted to join the Navy, and Harold didn’t, ” but they joined anyway on May 4, 1939, “because William and Harold didn’t want to be separated, ” their niece said. Neither was married.

About all Sowar knows of what happened to her uncles on Dec. 7 is from notes sent to her mother. “Harold would have been above deck because he was fire control, and William would have been below deck, ” Sowar said. Both were said to be “racing to their stations.”

Her grandparents were told the brothers were missing in action. Some sailors had made it off the ship, and they held out hope, initially, that Harold and William would be among them.

For a long time her mother thought her brothers were buried at sea, but she later learned of the commingled burials at Punchbowl.

“It was something that bothered my mother the whole time, ” Sowar said. “This was all very hard on my mother, and the fact that they were not buried the way that you’d want them to be buried, with dignity and a service, always bothered her. It was always very painful for her.”

Irene Louise Trapp Welch died in 2007.

In 2015 the family received a letter indicating the accounting agency was starting the big USS Oklahoma disinterment project at Punchbowl.

“When this came up, it was like, ‘Oh, I can finish this for my mom.’ It was something that I wanted to do desperately, ” she said. “As it got closer and closer to what we thought was going to be the cutoff date in December, it was just like, I had told my kids, I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

When the call did come at the end of November saying her uncles had been identified, “my reaction was, I cried—just cried and cried and cried. I was so relieved.”

After the relief that the brothers had been identified, the family made the decision to re-inter them—with identification—at Punchbowl.

“We don’t get back to ” La Porte, Ind., where the brothers grew up, “and so no one’s there ” from the family, Sowar said.

But the family does get back to Hawaii. Sowar’s son lives in Kaneohe. Twelve family members, Sowar and her husband included, will be on Oahu for the June 15 burial.

“My mother is buried here in Albuquerque, but we thought the best choice was to have them buried in the Punchbowl (near ) where the ship went down, ” she said.

“I don’t think I will be totally at peace until I see it with my own eyes, ” Sowar said. “I am glad that I will be there to pay my respects to them and show them how much this family loves them, and how proud I am that all the family is coming. That means a lot to me, and I know it would mean a lot to my mother.”

HONORING OUR VETERANS About 38, 000 small U.S. flags have been placed on grave sites at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in observance of Memorial Day. Although no public commemorations are planned for today, the Veterans Affairs cemetery, also known as Punchbowl, will be open to visitors from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The public may visit graves, but only in groups of 10 or fewer, with social distancing needed for individuals not from the same household, according to Punchbowl officials. Punchbowl is closed to bus traffic until 8 a.m. Tuesday.

The Army will hold an “intimate ” Memorial Day Remembrance Ceremony at the Post Cemetery at 10 a.m. today. The public may join in honoring Army veterans and members of other service branches who gave their lives in service of the country. COVID-19 mitigation protocols, such as physical distancing, will be implemented.

Col. Dan Misigoy, commander of U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii, will be the speaker. Representatives from the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Gold Star Families also will participate, placing wreaths to honor fallen comrades. Prior to the ceremony, a group of soldiers, Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts will place a small U.S. flag at each headstone.

Visitors who do not possess a military ID should enter Schofield through Lyman Gate on Kunia Road, where they will be subject to an installation security background check. All vehicle occupants 16 years of age and older must present a valid state or government photo ID, and the driver must provide a current driver’s license, vehicle registration, proof of insurance and safety check.

The cemetery is on Lyman Road, a little west of Humphreys Road ; look for white wrought-iron gates.

At the Hawaii State Veterans Cemetery in Kaneohe, Girl Scouts of Hawaii placed flags on gravestones Sunday. The cemetery is open from 7 :45 a.m. to 6 p.m.


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