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Windsor man’s DNA test helps ID the remains of his father, who died in Pearl Harbor attack

George Hudson didn’t really have much interest in analyzing his DNA.

“My wife said, ‘Do 23andMe,’” Hudson recalled with a shrug. “I don’t know why.”

The results Hudson received from the genomics company were pretty much what he had expected: 95% English/Irish descent, clustered around Dublin, and names of some potential distant cousins.

The surprise came a few months later. First was a phone call from a Navy representative bearing a single question: Was George the son of Charles Hudson? When he answered that he was, the caller said he’d be in touch.

What came next would be an elaborate dance with a stunning outcome. Nearly 80 years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the government had, for the first time, identified the remains of Charles Hudson, USN Water Tender 1st Class, who died aboard the USS Oklahoma.

In the nearly 80 years since the Japanese military attack of Dec. 7, 1941, those remains had twice been buried together with other bones, before being exhumed more recently for genetic analysis. It’s all part of a sweeping program by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to identify and rebury the remains of previously unidentified soldiers, sailors, Marines and flyers.

The USS Oklahoma counted 429 of those casualties. Only the USS Arizona suffered more in the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Oklahoma was part of Battleship Row, a group of seven ships anchored in formation off Ford Island. It was in the position closest to the mouth of the harbor, which made it most vulnerable to approaching Japanese planes.

“The war is hell,” George Hudson, 82, said from the home he shares with his wife, Leslie, in Windsor. “We grew up without our father. I hear people say, ‘My father this, my father that.’ I can’t say that.”

Photograph of Charles Hudson taken in San Mateo. Photo courtesy of George Hudson. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Photograph of Charles Hudson taken in San Mateo. Photo courtesy of George Hudson. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

But now he will have a gravesite to visit, in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, popularly known as the Punchbowl and situated in a volcanic crater on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The Navy will bury Charles Hudson with full honors on Friday. George will be there, three weeks after his sixth surgery for bladder cancer, and a few days before his seventh.

‘The worst part was picking up survivors’

The USS Oklahoma was commissioned in 1916. She escorted Allied convoys during World War I, and rescued American citizens and refugees in the Spanish Civil War. In December of 1940, the ship arrived at Pearl Harbor for patrols and exercises.

Almost exactly one year later, just before dawn on the morning of Sunday, Dec. 7, the Japanese launched a surprise attack of the base, which hosted a large part of the U.S. Naval fleet.

“I was just getting up,” recalled Larry Petretti, 98, Sonoma County’s last Pearl Harbor survivor. “As I walked out the hatch door, the Arizona exploded and practically knocked me back in. We were anchored approximately 1,000 yards from there. We didn’t have any bombs thrown at us, but there was a lot of machine guns fired at us.”

Petretti, a bosun’s mate on the repair ship USS Whitney, was a teenager at the time, unprepared for the magnitude of the day.

“The worst part for me, after the battle, was going around picking up survivors,” he said. “They were all burnt and falling apart.”

The Oklahoma, much closer to open ocean than the Whitney — which was moored near the shore of McGrew Point — was actually supposed to be out at sea on patrol that morning. But an admiral was scheduled to inspect Battleship Row the next day, and the crew was advised to stay put. The first three aerial torpedoes hit the ship about 7:55 a.m. Much of the crew was sleeping below deck and never made it to fresh air.

As Japanese planes strafed the deck with machine-gun fire, six more torpedoes hit the Oklahoma, ripping open its port side. Within 15 minutes of the first strike, the giant had rolled to its port side and almost completely capsized.

A few dozen sailors escaped, most of them hopping onto the neighboring USS Maryland to join the fight.

Most did not. Among the dead were seven men, including three brothers, for whom the United States would name warships. One of those was Father Aloysius Schmitt, the first American chaplain of any faith to die in World War II.

The seamen trapped inside would bang on the interior of the ship for three days, and 32 were extracted alive through holes cut in the bulkhead on Dec. 8 and 9. The others were below the water line and couldn’t be helped. Finally, the banging stopped.

A difficult, fatherless childhood

George Hudson was 3 when his father died.

Charles Hudson had grown up in Stockton to a farming family. He joined the Navy and made a career of it. Charles was on shore leave in Boston — about 21 at the time, George thinks — when he met Ethel Baker, a 15-year-old girl from a troubled home. They would be married for seven or eight years.

This is not the tale of a tight-woven family that would mourn together in the weeks following the Pearl Harbor attack, holding hands in prayer and awaiting news that never comes. Ethel Hudson was a troubled woman with an alcohol addiction. She and Charles divorced in June of 1941.

The household Ethel ran was so chaotic that the Navy intervened. George and his three siblings were removed from the home, with assistance from Charles, who remained on Naval assignment. (A fifth child died in infancy.) In the strongest of the fleeting memories George carries of his father, Charles stands in the living room of a group home in Seal Beach, going over arrangements for his children’s welfare with the house manager, Mrs. Thompson.

An old family photo of George Hudson's father, Charles, with his brothers and sister.  Photo courtesy of George Hudson.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
An old family photo of George Hudson's father, Charles, with his brothers and sister. Photo courtesy of George Hudson. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

“I don’t recall being held by my father,” George said. “I’m sure he did, but I have no memory of it.”

Charles’ mother — George’s grandmother — wound up bringing the children to live with her in the Bay Area. The neighbors there were smitten with little George and adopted him, changing his last name to Smith. But that home became a nightmare for the boy. His adoptive father, a sheriff’s deputy for San Mateo County, was a disciplinarian with a mean streak.

“He whaled on me constantly,” George said.

After George ran away twice, both times on bicycle, his grandmother adopted him back.

Rarities among the living

George Hudson would craft his own success story, building a career – after six years in the Navy – as an electronic drafter, including about 15 years at Hewlett-Packard. He raised a child, divorced, moved to Santa Rosa in 1975 and married Leslie. She’s a Quan, one of Santa Rosa’s most firmly rooted Chinese-American families; her father and two uncles received the Congressional Gold Medals for their service during World War II. George moved to Windsor with Leslie in 2016 and later got into consulting and real estate.

“It’s been a fantastic ride,” George said.

Perhaps as a result of his frayed childhood, he wasn’t particularly close to his siblings. One of them is alive now — his older brother Richard, who is 86 and lives in Oregon. Because of a Navy protocol that identifies the Person Authorized to Direct Disposition, or PADD, Richard handles all the direct communication about their father’s identification.

As surviving children of USS Oklahoma casualties, the Hudsons are rarities. Most of the sailors aboard the battleship were in their teens or early 20s. Of the 394 casualties who came to Offutt, fewer than 10 were known to be parents, Navy officials said.

Charles, Donna Lee, George, and Richard Hudson at Signal Hill in Long Beach.  (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Charles, Donna Lee, George, and Richard Hudson at Signal Hill in Long Beach. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

George Hudson has taken part in several family video conferences with members of the Navy Casualty Office. The first of those went over options for Charles’ remains. He could be cremated, reinterred at the Punchbowl or buried in a family plot or at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

“I said, ‘Leave him with his shipmates,’” George recalled.

Charles Hudson’s earthly remains were indeed with those of his fellow crewmen — but not at the Punchbowl, as George had imagined. Charles was in an airplane hangar in Sarpy County, Nebraska.

Skeletons on the tables

The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command CONUS Annex is a 23,000-square-foot laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base. For six years now, it has been the site of a massive attempt to identify the remains of fallen sailors and Marines from the USS Oklahoma. The lab hides inside the Martin Bomber Building, the cavernous hangar where the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, was manufactured — the bombs that officially launched the United States’ entry into World War II, and the bomb that effectively ended that war, linked at one nondescript site on the outskirts of Omaha.

“When you walk in the building, immediately there’s a glass wall and the lab space is right behind it,” said Carrie LeGarde, lead anthropologist on the USS Oklahoma Project. “It’s still kind a powerful thing for me when I walk in,and there’s the skeletons on the tables, and big murals on the walls.”

The body parts LeGarde has been analyzing have a complex history. The Navy was able to identify only 35 bodies from the Oklahoma by 1944. The remains of the other 394 veterans were interred as “unknowns” in two cemeteries, one on Oahu and the other on the island of Hawaii — then dug up in 1947 by the American Graves Registration Service in an attempt to pinpoint more personnel.

That effort was unsuccessful. The unidentified remains went back into the ground in 1950, this time at the Punchbowl, grouped together in 61 caskets laid in 46 graves.

In 2015, the Department of Defense announced it would exhume all unknown remains for DNA analysis. LeGarde has been on the team from the start. She was on site when the first caskets came out of the ground.

The bones she found inside were, for the most part, in good condition, still wrapped in 1950 blankets. But the groupings were hit-and-miss. Skeletons uncovered immediately after the attack were mostly intact and buried as such. In many cases, the bones of numerous sailors were lumped together.

Some caskets contained only skulls. They were sorted that way because the primary method of testing at the time of burial, LeGarde explained, was through dental identification. The government wanted skulls easily accessible because they were deemed most likely to be used in future analysis.

The remains were shipped to Offutt and laid out on about 40 big tables for extraction of DNA samples.

Meanwhile, the Navy and Marine Corps casualty offices were busy tracking down possible surviving relatives and collecting DNA from them, in order to create genetic links.

The military relies on its own DNA analysis to confirm matches, but searches existing databases like those created by 23andMe and Ancestry.com for clues. Consumers can choose not to share their results, but most waive that right in hopes of meeting a long-lost relative. The Department of Defense has described the platforms as “largely unregulated,” advising its employees to avoid the tests.

But George Hudson’s test rang a bell for Navy investigators, and they confirmed the lineage by collecting a sample from Richard.

Remarkably, the Navy has attached names to 352 of 394 previously unidentified bodies from the Oklahoma, leaving only 42 mysteries. In some cases, the connection is a single bone. The typical result for Oklahoma sailors, LeGarde said, is “a skull, arm and leg bones, and the hip.”

LeGarde believes they will identify others, but her DNA analysis is complete. The last anonymous sets of human remains, returned to Hawaii in seven flag-draped caskets, will be buried in a Dec. 7 ceremony marking the 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing.

LeGarde has helped countless families, but has met only a couple of them. Her work is in a windowless lab. The fun part, notifying relatives of discoveries, falls to the Casualty Office. But LeGarde admits feeling a strong connection to the dead servicemen and what she understatedly calls “the incident.” A couple years ago, she saw the 2001 blockbuster “Pearl Harbor,” starring Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale.

“I started watching it, and I had to stop because I started crying,” she said. “I couldn’t do it.”

‘I didn’t even have a chance to miss him’

The Navy is paying for three Hudson family members to fly to Hawaii and stay in modest hotels for this week’s reburial. Richard also has a wife. “My brother is the PADD, so guess how that’s gonna work,” George said.

Leslie will pay her own way. So will George’s niece — his sister’s daughter — along with her father and husband. Navy reps will pick them up and shuttle them to and from the Punchbowl. Charles will receive a gun salute and a rendition of taps. The family will wear Aloha shirts and toss leis into the grave, per local tradition.

George Hudson is not a particularly sentimental man when it comes to family, his life or, least of all, military service. But he acknowledges the gravity of this reburial. His dad will get the gravestone denied him for eight decades, and George will find closure to a turbulent, fatherless childhood.

“I didn’t even have a chance to miss him,” George said. “This is all I have of my father.”

One thing the Hudsons won’t do on Oahu is visit the USS Oklahoma. It sank during a storm as it was being towed to Oakland for salvage in May of 1947, nearly dragging a tugboat down with it. Its whereabouts in the Pacific are unknown. Perhaps it, too, will one day be identified and pulled from the sea.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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