Family of USS Oklahoma sailor happy ‘Uncle Buck’ will be remembered

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The sinking of the USS Oklahoma and Navy Fireman 1st Class Robert Joseph Harr of Dallas City, Ill.

NIOTA, Ill. — Glenn Smith always remained curious about what happened to Uncle Buck.

“My grandmother (Bertha Harr) and my mother (Margaret Harr), ever since I was a little kid, always wondered where Uncle Buck was because he was missing an action,” Smith said. “They never had clarity. He was just lost forever, buried in a hole with a bunch of guys.”

Smith’s mother and grandmother died many years ago, but many other members of Smith’s family will finally have closure later this summer surrounding the circumstances of his uncle’s death.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Washington, D.C., announced last week that Navy Fireman 1st Class Robert Joseph Harr of Dallas City, Ill., killed during World War II, was accounted for on Feb. 12, 2021.

Harr was 25 years old when he was assigned to the battleship USS Oklahoma. The ship was moored at Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, when it was attacked by Japanese aircraft on Dec. 7, 1941. The USS Oklahoma sustained multiple torpedo hits, causing it to quickly capsize. The attack on the ship resulted in the deaths of 429 crewmen, including Harr.

Lost at Pearl Harbor

From December 1941 to June 1944, Navy personnel recovered the remains of the deceased crew. They were subsequently interred in the Halawa and Nu’uanu Cemeteries.

Tasked with recovering and identifying fallen U.S. personnel in the Pacific Theater, members of the American Graves Registration Service disinterred the remains of U.S. casualties from the two cemeteries and transferred them in September 1947 to the Central Identification Laboratory at Schofield Barracks. 

The laboratory staff confirmed the identifications of 35 men from the USS Oklahoma at that time. The AGRS subsequently buried the unidentified remains in 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu. In October 1949, a military board classified those who could not be identified as non-recoverable, including Harr.

“For years and years, they’ve tried to bring people home from Vietnam, Korea and so forth,” said Smith, who lives in Niota. “So I kind of halfway knew a little about it, but I didn’t figure we’d ever find anything out.”

DNA analysis helps identify Harr’s remains

Between June and November 2015, personnel from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency exhumed the USS Oklahoma unknowns from the Punchbowl for analysis. Scientists used anthropological analysis to identify Harr’s remains. Additionally, scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome DNA analysis.

Harr’s name is recorded on the Courts of the Missing at the Punchbowl, along with others missing from WWII. A rosette is placed next to his name, indicating he has been accounted for.

Smith’s mother, Margaret, was Robert Harr’s brother. Smith received the first phone call about the POW/MIA agency’s discovery.

“A few years after my mom died, a forensic outfit out of Texas that does work for the government got a hold of me,” he said. “They just started identifying bones. If family members want to know about their (missing sailor), they got DNA from the families and then they would cross check.

“To make a long story short, this went on for about three years, and then they called and gave me a bunch of information, and then here a couple months ago, the Navy department got a hold of me and confirmed it was him.”

‘It was a shock to all of us’

Billie Smith, who lives in Stronghurst, is Glenn Smith’s cousin. Her father, Bill Harr, was Robert Harr’s brother. She knew little about the investigation until Glenn called her about the phone call he received from the Navy.

“I knew nothing. Nothing,” Billie Smith said. “He was at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. That’s all we knew. It was a shock to all of us (to learn of his identification).”

Family members had options for Robert Harr’s final resting place. They opted for a ceremony on Aug. 14 at Pauline Cemetery in Rutledge, Mo., where many other family members are buried.

“It’s going to be something else,” Billie Smith said. “Six Navy guys are going to be carrying him, and they’re going to have the gun salute, Taps and all of that. And we’re expecting a lot of people.

“It’s supposed to be fantastic. I think it’s going to be a real tear jerker.”

Glenn Smith served in the Navy, and his four children all served time in the Iraq War. He looks forward to the day his uncle is properly remembered.

“I imagine there’ll be quite a lot of people there, and I think it’s wonderful, whether it’s for my family or any veteran’s family to have them honored for dying in the service of the country,” he said. “It’s never too late to honor somebody.”

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