For the family of a man presumed to have been killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s been 70 years of uncertainty and the hope that someday his remains could be identified and he could finally lie in his rightful resting place.
But, as reported by The Boston Globe, the family of Navy machinist Eugene Keller Eberhardt learned that a DNA test may soon be able to tell for sure whether he is one of the 74,000 people who died during World War II and remain “unaccounted for,” buried in group caskets.
Eberhardt’s niece, Joan Roberts of Rockport, Mass., told the paper she got a phone call from a forensic genealogist in Texas who was contracted by the Navy Casualty/POW-MIA Branch to help identify remains.
Dee Dee King, the scientist, also contacted Eugene’s brother George, now 107 years old.
The family is hopeful, but a forensic anthropologist who is also working on identifying remains said the process is very difficult and could take years.
The remains, said anthropologist Greg Berg, who manages the Central Identification Laboratory of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, are mixed together to a greater extent than originally believed. Since 2003, when the group was put into action, the remains belonging to only five people have been identified.
But Berg is still optimistic, saying in an email that “the commingling problems are not insurmountable, and [we are] confident in our abilities to eventually bring about case resolution.”
On its website, the joint command says 20 percent of the 1,000 boxes of remains it has are cases related to World War II. But the contents of each box vary – boxes may contain the remains of four or five people, while a single person’s remains may be in several different boxes.
The group generally uses mitochondrial DNA to identify very old skeletal remains. Mitochondrial DNA is passed on from mothers to children. Mitochondrial DNA survives for a long time and lives on in the maternal line.
Nuclear DNA is found in the nucleus of cells and is inherited from both parents. Nuclear DNA is often more reliable as an identifier, but it degrades faster and is unable to survive in certain environmental conditions, leaving an insufficient amount of DNA present for an identification.
While the family waits, George Eberhardt dreams of one day burying his brother on the family farm, and hopes he will live long enough to see that happen.
“I’m an optimist,” he said. “I have ideas that I might live to be 120.”