PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — Nearly eight decades ago, Ray Emory, then a young sailor, watched in disbelief as Japanese torpedoes tore into American ships in Pearl Harbor.
Emory survived the devastating attack but didn’t forget his fellow sailors and Marines who died and were buried in Hawaii without anyone knowing their names.
His relentless efforts in the years that followed led to nearly 150 of those servicemen finally being identified so their families could find closure.
Now frail with white-hair, the 97-year-old Emory arrived Tuesday in a golf cart at the pier where his ship, the USS Honolulu, was moored on Dec. 7, 1941. He came to say what could be his final goodbye to the storied naval base.
More than 500 sailors were there to greet him. They lined the rails and formed an honor cordon, shouting cheers of “Hip, Hip, Hooray!” Emory saluted them.
“I’m glad I came and I’ll never forget it,” Emory told reporters after a ceremony in his honor.
Emory wanted to visit the pier before leaving his Hawaii home for Boise, Idaho. His wife died about a month ago and he plans to live with his son and go fishing.
During the attack on Pearl Harbor, Emory managed to fire a few rounds at the airplanes that dropped the torpedoes. He still has an empty bullet casing that fell to his ship deck.
In 2012, the Navy and National Park Service recognized Emory for his work with the military and Department of Veterans Affairs to honor and remember Pearl Harbor’s dead.
Bureaucrats didn’t welcome his efforts, at least not initially. Emory says they politely told him to ”‘go you-know-where.’” It didn’t deter him.
First, thanks to legislation sponsored by the late U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink of Hawaii, he managed to get gravestones for unknowns from the USS Arizona marked with the name of their battleship.
In 2003, the military agreed to dig up a casket that Emory was convinced, after meticulously studying records, included the remains of multiple USS Oklahoma servicemen. Emory was right, and five sailors were identified.
It helped lay the foundation for the Pentagon’s decision more than a decade later to exhume and attempt to identify all 388 sailors and Marines from the Oklahoma who had been buried as unknowns in a national cemetery in Honolulu.
Since those 2015 exhumations, 138 sailors from the Oklahoma have been identified. About 77 have been reburied, many in their hometowns, bringing closure to families across the country.
“Ray, you’re the man that did it. There’s nobody else. If it wasn’t for you, it would have never been done,” Jim Taylor, the Navy’s liaison to Pearl Harbor survivors, told Emory during the brief ceremony Tuesday at the USS Honolulu’s old pier.
Taylor presented Emory with a black, folded POW/MIA flag printed with the words: “You are not forgotten.”
Some of the remains, especially those burned to ash, will never be identified. But the military aims to put names with 80 percent of the Oklahoma servicemen who were dug up in 2015.
Altogether, the Pearl Harbor attack killed nearly 2,400 U.S. servicemen. The Oklahoma lost 429 men after being hit by at least nine torpedoes.
It was the second-largest number of dead from one vessel. The USS Arizona lost 1,177 sailors and Marines. Most of those killed on the Arizona remain entombed in the sunken hull of the battleship.
The Pentagon has also exhumed the remains of 35 servicemen from the USS West Virginia from Honolulu’s National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. None have been identified so far.