ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The Pentagon is launching efforts to solve a baffling World War II mystery: whether dozens of U.S. sailors listed as missing from a ship disaster were actually recovered and buried all along as unknowns in a New York cemetery.
More than 130 victims of the USS Turner's 1944 explosion and sinking near New York Harbor are still officially missing. But WWII researcher Ted Darcy found papers last year indicating at least four of them were buried as unknowns in a Long Island military cemetery. He believes the rest could be there too.
After The Associated Press initially reported on Darcy's findings in November, the Pentagon office responsible for recovering and identifying the nation's war dead said only that the records that could confirm exactly how many of the Turner's sailors are buried in the cemetery were missing.
But in recent days, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency said it is now "taking the steps to send out inquiries and conduct archival research" to try to locate the files associated with the Turner unknowns buried in the cemetery in Farmingdale on Long Island.
Darcy and loved ones of the missing crew members hope that the records could be found, identifications made and that the long-lost remains of the Turner be reburied in marked gravesites with full military honors.
"I'd like to see if we can have closure on this, find out who's in the graves," said Richard Duffy, a 61-year-old retired mechanic from Ballston Spa, New York, who was named after his fallen uncle.
The Turner, a 10-month-old Navy destroyer, sank off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, after a series of internal explosions on Jan. 3, 1944. The Navy never determined what caused the initial blast, but an inquiry found that munitions were being handled below deck around the time of the first explosion. Half of the nearly 300 men on board survived, but scores of others were killed and listed as missing. Some remains were recovered from the sunken wreckage during the yearlong salvage operation, but an exact number remains unknown.
Margaret Duffy Sickles was not quite 5 years old when her family in Whitehall, New York, received word that her brother, 18-year-old Fireman 1st Class Richard Duffy, was among the missing. After reading the AP story in November, she sought the help of New York congressional delegation, hoping it could persuade the Pentagon to make an attempt to identify the remains buried on Long Island.
"I will work with the families to cut through red tape and ensure that the Department of Defense's POW/MIA Accounting Agency does everything it can to try to properly identify these brave Americans," said U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, a Democrat.
Sickles, of Kingston, said identifying any of the remains after 73 years would be difficult but not impossible given advances with DNA and other technology.
"It's quite possible my brother isn't even among any of those" buried on Long Island, she told the AP. "Nevertheless, it was something we didn't know about until this story came out."
Pentagon officials say the process of identifying the remains of unknown service members must meet strict protocols, and in the case of the Turner, it can't begin until certain key documents, including those containing a sailor's dental information, are found. They noted that the effort is also hampered by the lack of records for any of the 70 unknowns buried at the Long Island cemetery.
Todd S. Livick Sr., a the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency spokesman, said in an email that the agency's researchers have spent years searching for files pertaining to the cemetery's burials of unknowns, but so far they've not been located.
"Without these sources of information, DPAA cannot determine whether multiple individuals were buried in the casket or construct a case for disinterment," he said.
According to Darcy, a retired career Marine from Locust Grove, Virginia, who specializes in MIA cases, the Agency hasn't done enough for the fallen Turner sailors.
"These guys died for their country," he said. "They deserve to be buried properly and the families deserve the closure."