Weekly Columns

The last time Emily Utterback saw her big brother Samuel Cyrus Steiner was in 1940 when he left home to join the Navy. Because he’d be away for her birthday, he gave her his pocket knife as an early present. During his assignment in Hawaii, he also sent her a handkerchief. It is still one of Emily’s prized possessions because it’s her connection to her brother who went missing in action when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. 

The Little River County, Arkansas native was among the 429 crewmen assigned to the USS Oklahoma who went down with the ship. Steiner’s remains were identified earlier this year and returned to his family last month. This homecoming was made possible by the relentless pursuit of the individuals at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) who are tasked with finding and identifying the remains of men and women who served in uniform.  

More than 81,000 Department of Defense (DoD) personnel who served from WWII through Operation Iraqi Freedom remain unaccounted for. Leveraging innovative techniques, the agency works to account for those missing using the largest and most diverse skeletal identification laboratory in the world. By partnering with non-governmental organizations and government agencies to conduct research and extensive excavations, it has been able to account for service members in all corners of the globe and bring hope to families.  

Several times each year, DoD provides families with information about the ongoing activities and efforts to account for their missing loved ones. In November, the agency hosted a Family Member Update in Little Rock and shared updates with individuals representing 149 personnel. DPAA planned to have an in-person meeting, but launched its inaugural virtual event to comply with public health requirements due to COVID-19.

The pandemic has created new hurdles for the agency. Fortunately, the team has been able to continue its forensic analyses that has resulted in the identification of 120 unaccounted personnel in Fiscal Year 2020 including Steiner and fellow Oklahoma sailor Mess Attendant Third Class Isaac Parker from Woodson, Arkansas. 

The return of these Arkansans to their families has been a long time coming. Navy personnel worked from December 1941 through June 1944 to recover the remains of the fallen. The service members were buried in cemeteries in Hawaii until they were disinterred in 1947 so they could be identified. Only 35 Oklahoma crew members were positively identified and the remains of the other sailors and Marines were buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. 

In 2015, forensic advancements prompted the reexamination of remains associated with the Oklahoma. As of early December, 279 members of the ship’s crew have been identified. 

DPAA personnel will continue looking for those missing in action and give answers to families waiting to hear their loved one has been found. Emily Utterback waited nearly 80 years to hear her brother had been identified. That news came this year on her birthday. We are grateful that Fireman First Class Steiner has returned home. We remain committed to providing closure for the tens of thousands of other families who deserve that same resolution.