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Finally at Peace: Remains of brothers killed at Pearl Harbor have been identified

Carol Sowar holds portraits of her uncles, William Trapp, left, and Harold Trapp, both of whom died during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

With yellowing photos and official documents spread out on her dining room table, Carol Sowar still gets teary-eyed when talking about the two uncles who died nearly a decade before she was born.

Harold Frank Trapp was 24, and younger brother William Herman Trapp was 23 when they were killed aboard the USS Oklahoma during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.

Their bodies unidentifiable, the Trapp brothers’ remains were commingled with countless others and buried in common graves at the national cemetery in Honolulu.

“Although I never knew them, they were not unknown to me,” said Sowar, 70. Their deaths left just one sibling, Sowar’s mother, Irene Louise Trapp, the dead uncles’ younger sister, who grieved for her brothers until her own death in 2007.

“It essentially wiped out that entire side of my family. … I never had any uncles on that side of the family, never had any aunts, never had any cousins,” Sowar said. “I think they would have been awesome uncles, and I regret missing out on that.”

Each year on Memorial Day, Sowar and her family remember the long lost Trapp brothers. It’s not just the sudden and violent deaths of the young men that has caused them pain, it’s also knowing that their remains were never identified and given a proper burial.

That changes this year as Sowar, a retired French teacher from La Cueva High School, her husband, Jack, a retired fiscal officer with the city of Albuquerque, and seven other family members prepare to travel to Hawaii. There, Harold and William Trapp, having finally been identified, will get a full and formal military funeral before being interred in a joint grave, one atop the other, at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific on June 15.

The capsized USS Oklahoma at right, next to the heavily damaged USS Maryland, after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“I will finally be at peace knowing they’ve been buried with the dignity and care that they deserve, and knowing that this fulfills something that my mother really needed, and that’s important to me,” Sowar said.

What made identification possible after all these years were advances in the use of mitochondrial DNA in forensic medicine, allowing researchers to identify people through remains such as bones, teeth or hair.

In 2015, Sowar and her husband attended a special meeting in Denver for family members and descendants of military personnel who were aboard the Oklahoma and were listed as missing or killed in action. It was then that they learned of a five-year project by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to exhume the remains and try to identify them. It was no easy task, considering that 429 sailors and Marines aboard the ship were killed. Most were never identified, and their remains were joined with others and buried, Sowar said.

The USS Oklahoma in 1938. The ship was a Nevada class battleship commissioned in 1916. It served in World War I and was modernized and refitted in 1929.

She, her children and her brother submitted samples of their own DNA for researchers to use for genetic comparison.

“Last fall, in the middle of COVID, we still hadn’t heard anything, and I had just kind of given up hope, but then in November I got the call,” Sowar recalled. “They had identified both of my uncles, and I just cried.”

Among the Trapp brothers’ remains were portions of their skulls and pelvises, and some of the large bones of the arms and legs. Distinguishing between the brothers with their similar DNA would have been difficult except for the knowledge that older brother Harold was taller, so it came down to simply measuring the length of the bones, Sowar said.

Harold and William Trapp were born in Chicago. They were still young when the family moved to LaPorte, Indiana, where other family members lived on a working farm. They earned money picking fruit and caddying at a golf course and often surprised their mother by telling her to hold out her apron, into which they poured their earnings.

Harold was more serious, studious and athletic, while William was more carefree and artistic and loved working with his hands. Despite those personality differences, the brothers were exceptionally close, and along with their sister – Sowar’s mother – they did everything together.

The brothers were also extremely patriotic and joined the Navy Reserve while in high school. It was William who first broached the idea of enlisting in the regular Navy, Sowar said. Harold got on board because he wasn’t about to let his little brother embark on the adventure alone.

After training in their respective specialties, William reported for duty aboard the USS Oklahoma in 1939 and Harold in 1940, according to documents Sowar was able to collect over the years.

The capsized USS Oklahoma is lifted out of its watery grave in May 1943 during salvage operations.

The USS Oklahoma, a Nevada-class battleship, was commissioned in 1916, served in World War I, and modernized and refitted in 1929. The ship was 583 feet long, had a beam of 95 feet, 5 inches, a draft of 28 feet, 6 inches and displaced 27,500 tons. Its deck was 3-inch-thick steel.

On a quiet Sunday, just before 8 a.m., Japanese bombers punched through the sky above Pearl Harbor. The ship was struck by multiple aerial torpedoes and then strafed with machine gun fire. The mangled and burning ship, with a complement of 1,398 officers and crew, soon capsized. Some of the survivors jumped 50 feet into fuel-flamed water, others trapped inside were freed when rescuers opened hatches and cut holes in the hull.

Sowar said Harold Trapp, a fire controlman 2nd class, was on the deck at the time of the attack; William Trapp, an electrician’s mate 3rd class, was below deck.

“I think one of the hardest things for my mother and the family was when they got notification on December 7, that the boys were missing,” Sowar said. “They held out hope, but the Navy didn’t notify them until February 19 that they were not able to locate them.”

Now, nearly 80 years later, the remains of the Trapp brothers have been found and Sowar and her family will finally get closure.

“It’s such a relief to know that they are going to be buried with respect and dignity because they were heroes,” she said. “And I’m glad I can do this for my mother.”

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