In the small coal mining town of Douglas, W.Va., the graves of two U.S. Navy World War II veterans have long sat empty. Mary Ann Ryther thought her uncles' graves would always remain this way, until she learned recent advancements in DNA identification are enabling the remains of lost servicemen to be reunited with their families.
Now she finds there is hope for at least one set of remains to be returned. In her Mecca home, where Mosquito Lake can be seen from the front window, Mary Ann, 75, and her husband, Harold Ryther, 76, shared the stories of the uncles who were killed in action.
"This isn't for me, it's really for my family," Mary Ann prefaced.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Mary Ann Ryther of Mecca shows a flag with stars representing family members who served in the military — four uncles and her father. The two gold stars are for two uncles who died in action. With Mary Ann is her husband, Harold.
A tale of two uncles
"My grandparents had grave sites for both of them in West Virginia, and there's nothing in them," she said.
Four of Mary Ann's uncles served in World War II, but the bodies of Stanislaw Drwall, who was killed aboard the USS Oklahoma in the attack on Pearl Harbor, and of Walter Drwall, who was killed in the North Atlantic in 1942, were never returned home.
It's been nearly 72 years since the Oklahoma went down and 429 aboard perished.
"When my grandmother got the telegraph that (Stanislaw) was deceased, she cried. That's the only memory I have," said Mary Ann.
She was about 4 years old when the telegraph arrived at their Douglas, W.Va., home on Feb. 14, 1942. It reads:
"After exhaustive search it has been found impossible to locate your son Stanislaw Frank Drwall Patternmaker First Class U.S. Navy and he has therefore been officially declared to have lost his life in the service of his county as of December Seventh Nineteen Forty One. The department expresses to you its sincere sympathy."
This was not the only tragedy to strike the tiny coal mining town. Many of the young men there enlisted in the military. For Many Ann's grandparents it was a matter of pride. They had immigrated to America from Poland and worked hard to learn English and gain their citizenship.
As visual proof of the family's patriotism, Mary Ann pulls out a flag she inherited from her grandmother.
"I can remember this flag hanging in our window," Mary Ann said.
The now sunfaded banner displays five stars representing family members who served in the military, Mary Ann's uncles and her father. Two of the stars are filled in gold representing those who died in action, one for Stanislaw and one for his younger brother Walter Drwall. Both brothers are Purple Heart recipients.
Walter, a second class seaman, died a year after his brother when his ship went down in the North Atlantic in December 1942. It was his first mission after completing bootcamp at Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois.
Considered to be buried at sea, Walter's remains were never recovered.
A Christmas note home
For Stanislaw, the situation was different; new DNA evidence may be able to identify his remains which were removed from the Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma was waiting in Pearl Harbor for minor repairs on Dec. 7, 1941. Shortly before 8 a.m. it was hit by a series of Japanese torpedoes causing it to capsize in minutes. With its hull floating above water, several seamen who survived could be heard banging on the ship's bottom.
By cutting holes through the hull of the ship, 32 men were able to be rescued. The rest were not as fortunate.
The Oklahoma was left alone until it was able to be righted nearly 18 months later. At that time, the remaining bodies were removed from the vessel. Only 36 were positively identified, while the 393 others were buried in mass graves in Hawaii's Nuuanu or Halawa Naval cemeteries.
These were later exhumed and interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, informally referred to as "The Punchbowl." This is where Stanislaw is presumably buried.
He had been just six months away from leaving the service. In a letter postmarked Dec. 5, 1941, two days before his death, he discusses the purchase of bonds with his family, preparing for his time out of the military.
Harold Ryther read from the end of the letter which can still cause his wife to tear up.
"Christmas is coming so with this money order I am sending you can buy presents for everyone that is home and don't forget Mary Ann, tell her that it came from Uncle Santa," he read.
Hope for return
When an historian called her up a couple months ago to confirm she was related to Stanislaw, Mary Ann said she was surprised to hear about the DNA testing being used to identify those killed on the Oklahoma.
"I had no idea they were even doing anything," she said.
On Sept. 14, she and Harold attended a meeting in Chicago with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense where more was explained about the logistics of the department's efforts for identifying her uncle's and other unknown military men's remains.
One of the caskets containing a portion of the 393 military personnel killed aboard the Oklahoma had been re-exhumed from The Punchbowl for DNA testing.
"The remains are exhumed after substantial research and narrowing down to the point where analysts have a clear idea on who is buried and then there is an approval process," said Jessica Pierno, spokeswoman for the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office.
She said it is still being determined whether the rest of the remains will be exhumed. By gathering the DNA from living family members of the Oklahoma victims, scientists are able to cross examine DNA extracted form the remains to look for a match.
Mary Ann, along with others, was sent a DNA kit requiring her to swab the inside of her mouth to gather the mitochondrial DNA that is used in the process. The majority of DNA gathering has been completed, but due to the nature of the remains and their twice burial, the matching task is a tricky one.
"Based on attempts and limited technology at the time there was extensive commingling of the remains," Pierno said.
Nevertheless, she said there have been more than 40 successful matches among the Punchbowl remains, which include unknown military personnel from both the Korean War and World War II. Five of the identifications were for Oklahoma remains.
"It's an important element of our work to account for the missing," Pierno said.
Harold said they were told that the lab was working on approximately 10 sets of remains each month, so it may be awhile before Stanislaw is possibly identified.
"I don't know if in my life time they will ever find his remains," Mary Ann said. "Those families deserve to know what happened to their loved ones and to possibly bring them back"
So while the graves in Douglas, W.Va., remain empty there is new hope that one day Stanislaw may be returned to rest with his family.