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Opening a door to the painful past

Disinterring victims after 67 years could lead to their identities.

Frank Mood Jr., a family friend in Sykesville, Md., holds the ceremonial sword that Hittorff received as a midshipman.It was corroded from months in the harbor.
Frank Mood Jr., a family friend in Sykesville, Md., holds the ceremonial sword that Hittorff received as a midshipman.It was corroded from months in the harbor.Read moreED HILLE / Staff Photographer

Nine days after the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, a telegram arrived at 211 Virginia Ave., Westmont, N.J.

It was among the first of 294,000 such telegrams that would go to American families during World War II.

It read: "The Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that your son Ensign Joseph Parker Hittorff Jr., United States Navy, was lost in action. . . ."

"If remains are recovered," the message added, "they will be interred temporarily in the locality where death occurred, and you will be notified accordingly."

Hittorff's Naval Academy ring was later found in the wreckage of his ship, the battleship Oklahoma, which capsized in the attack 67 years ago today, Dec. 7, 1941.

But there was never any word on his remains. "Missing in action or buried at sea" - that's how the Navy still lists him.

So you can imagine the shock to Hittorff's sister, Marion - now 98 and living in a Collingswood nursing home - when she learned recently that bits of her brother's body might have been recovered decades ago, and might lie in a grave marked "unknown" at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.

The U.S. military just this year identified three other Oklahoma casualties buried as unknowns in the cemetery. A veterans group wants additional graves - including one that may hold Hittorff's remains - to be opened.

For Marion Hittorff, who has given a DNA sample to help in any identification effort, the pain of remembering has flared all over again.

A calling cut short

She called her brother "Bud." Their mother had died in 1933 when Bud was 17 and a junior at Collingswood High School. Marion was six years older and worked in Center City. "He hated coming home to an empty house," she said. "I'd say, 'Why don't you start the potatoes.' "

Hittorff had always wanted to go to sea. Enrolling in the Naval Academy was the only way, financially, that he could have gone to college amid the Depression. His father, Joseph Hittorff Sr., had struggled to find steady work after his layoff at the Arbuckle coffee company.

Upon graduating from Annapolis in 1940, Hittorff was assigned to the Oklahoma, a 583-foot battleship attached to the Pacific Fleet at Hawaii.

A chatty letter he sent home a week before the Japanese attack revealed the mind-set of a nation at peace. "Thanksgiving was a dismal failure," he lamented. "Just missed playing golf. Then had a tennis game planned that fell through."

At 7:55 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 7, Hittorff, like most men at Pearl Harbor, probably was still getting up when a force of 353 Japanese torpedo planes, bombers and fighters swept down in the surprise assault, yanking America into a war already raging in Europe and Asia.

In an hour and 50 minutes, the Japanese sank or damaged 19 American ships, and killed 2,403 U.S. military personnel and civilians.

The Oklahoma, sitting at a dock, was hit by several torpedoes. Sailors later wrote to the Hittorffs with second- or thirdhand accounts of what Ensign Hittorff may have done when "general quarters" was sounded.

One account said he had rushed to his station in his pajamas. After the order came to abandon ship, he and several other men had started up the ladders. When a pipe burst, Hittorff lost his footing and fell back down. He told the others to go ahead without him as the ship began to roll over.

Another account depicted him working at his station in the engine room until the end.

The telegram reporting his death was delivered to Westmont on Dec. 16. Rather than call Marion at work, Hittorff's father drove across the bridge and went to her office at the Aetna insurance company.

Almost seven decades later, sitting in a cream-colored sweater and plaid skirt at Collingswood Manor, Marion Hittorff could hardly bear to talk about receiving the news.

Several photos of her brother rested in a corner cupboard in her room. The pictures showed him, forever young, with a long face, dark eyebrows and full lips.

She never wanted a memorial service for Bud, she said. She had always hoped that, somehow, some way, he would walk through the door. But a service might have helped her father, she said. It might have given him a little peace.

Keepsakes but no closure

For more than a year after it rolled belly up, the Oklahoma lay upside-down in Pearl Harbor. Nearly 430 men were dead or unaccounted for.

In 1943, when the Navy righted the ship, the bodies of the dead plummeted like so much debris to the bottom.

The task of recovery and identification was difficult. There were tales of remains being picked up in shovels. To this day, 391 crewmen are listed as missing.

As personal items were found, the Navy sent them home. To Virginia Avenue in Westmont went Hittorff's gold ring, rubbed bright again. A ceremonial sword from Annapolis, corroded from months in water, also went. Some uniforms and letters, kept ashore by Hittorff, also were mailed.

The years moved on.

Hittorff's father died in 1961 at age 84.

Marion, who never married, kept everything she had of her brother's until she moved to the nursing home a couple of years ago. She then boxed it up and sent it to the son of an old friend, Frank Mood Jr. of Sykesville, Md.

"This is all of it," Mood said, spreading the materials on his kitchen table in the open country west of Baltimore.

Among Hittorff's letters was one dated Nov. 2, 1941, talking of war clouds on the horizon. He wrote that he was "expecting the worst - and hoping for the best."

Going to work with DNA

Several years ago, Ray Emory, a Pearl Harbor veteran living in Hawaii, was looking over the records of men missing from the Oklahoma.

He found that one man's remains tentatively had been identified in 1949. But a military anthropologist had refused to sign off on the identification, so the man remained an official unknown, buried with several other unknowns in a grave at the military cemetery in Honolulu.

The veteran kept poring over records and found 26 other men in the same category - tentatively identified in 1949, but buried as unknown.

He recognized that today, with DNA testing, it might be possible to complete the IDs.

"Dig them up, and go to work." That's what he recalls suggesting to the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), which is charged with finding missing service personnel.

Mal Middlesworth of Upland, Calif., president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, said his group supported Emory's effort.

"He has been a pain in the butt to the military," Middlesworth said, "but he has accomplished great things."

This summer, after opening a grave and working for many months at its lab in Hawaii, JPAC announced the identification of three men: Ensign Irvin A.R. Thompson of Hudson County, N.J.; Ensign Eldon P. Wyman of Portland, Ore.; and Fireman Second Class Lawrence A. Boxrucker of Dorchester, Wis.

The sailors, at last, were sent home and reburied.

A battleship Oklahoma family group is working to find relatives of others of the 27 men so that DNA samples can be taken.

Johnie E. Webb Jr., deputy to the JPAC commander, wrote in an e-mail that "no decision has been made at this time on whether another casket will be disinterred or not."

The problems encountered with the first grave opening were enormously complex. The old records cited by Emory suggested that remains of five men might have been in the grave. In fact, JPAC found DNA from 46 men, all in the one coffin.

But Bob Valley of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the brother of an Oklahoma casualty, said nothing more would be gained without further disinterments. He is urging relatives to call their representatives in Congress to put pressure on the military.

"We want JPAC to bring up those other graves and get those remains on the table and see if they can identify those individuals and give the families some closure - put that to rest," he said.

Wound that still hurts

Marion Hittorff was dazzled by the men in "shining white." Two Navy chiefs, in their starched dress uniforms, had come to her room to take DNA swabs from her mouth.

This was after Valley had called to tell her the whole story about where her brother might lie.

The news had taken her aback. She wasn't sure how she felt about the idea of digging up the grave.

"I don't know," she said. "I just don't know."

Although she had sent most of her brother's keepsakes to Mood, she had held on to a few cherished items. One was the last letter she had sent to Bud with a candy-cane stocking for Christmas.

After Pearl Harbor, the package came back to her in the mail as unable to be delivered.

For not quite 67 years, she had kept the letter in a drawer. A few weeks ago, she took it out and looked at it again. In her tears, she ripped it up.

That's how bad the wound still hurt.