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Family gets closure as soldier killed at Pearl Harbor is identified

Harold and Mary Ann Ryther, of Mecca, talk about Mary Ann’s uncle, Navy Patternmaker 1st Class Stanislaw Drwall, and the difficulty in getting his remains returned to his hometown of Thomas, W.Va. Drwall was killed aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma in Pearl Harbor when it was attacked Dec. 7, 1941. Drwall will be buried Aug. 5. Staff photo / R. Michael Semple

MECCA — Mary Ann Ryther had just gone to take a nap when she got a phone call with an answer she and her family had been waiting for since 1941.

Her husband, Harold, woke her up — telling her to take the call.

“He comes in on the phone and says, ‘They want you on the phone.’ I had no idea what this was about,” Mary Ann said, recalling that March day this year. “I thought he was just giving me updates, but he said, ‘I just wanted to let you know that your uncle has been identified.'”

Navy Patternmaker 1st Class Stanislaw Drwall was killed during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor while he was aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma. Mary Ann’s family never has known where his remains were — or if they even existed.

It wasn’t until 2010 that the family even knew there were remains from the Oklahoma, let alone if any were Drwall.

Eleven years later, his remains finally were identified so he can be given a proper burial in his hometown of Thomas, W.Va.

“I lost it completely. I could not believe it after 11 years that I’ve been trying to get him back,” Mary Ann said.

HER OWN MISSION

Her desire to find his remains had been a lifelong dream.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese Empire, Mary Ann’s family assumed there were no remains. Harold said it wasn’t until 2010 that the military contacted remaining family members of the dead.

A news release from the Defense POW / MIA Accounting Agency explains from December 1941 to June 1944, remains of the 429 crewmen killed during the attack on the USS Oklahoma were recovered. The remains gathered during the recovery were interred in the Halawa and Nu’uanu cemeteries in Hawaii.

In 1947, the remains were exhumed, but only 35 identifications were made. The other unidentified remains were buried in 46 plots in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu.

In October 1949, Drwall officially was considered nonrecoverable after his remains could not be identified.

DRIVING FORCE

Mary Ann said she was influenced by her grandparents to find Drwall’s remains identified. Since she was a child, Mary Ann had lived with them in that small town in West Virginia. She remembers her grandmother’s sadness when she received the telegram that Drwall was killed.

“I was about 4 years old, and I can remember sitting next to my grandmother. She was holding a piece of paper in her hand, and she was crying. When you’re a little kid and see your grandmother crying, I didn’t know what the paper was, but she was crying so it hurt me,” Mary Ann said. “That’s the only thing I can remember from all this. I didn’t know what the paper was, but it was the telegram telling her that her son was killed. I lived with them all those years, so I know what they went through.”

She added the push also comes because nearly a year later, a second uncle died in the Pacific — two sons in less than a year.

Harold said for the rest of their lives, Mary Ann’s grandparents thought Drwall’s body was lost, unrecoverable or did not exist.

“Here it was in Hawaii the whole time, along with the rest of them,” Harold said.

He explained the ship was sold for scrap. In 1947, the ship was being towed to the West Coast, but it was lost in the Pacific Ocean — 15,000 feet deep.

“We assumed the bodies were still on that ship at the time,” Harold said.

IDENTIFICATION EFFORT

In 2010, Mary Ann received a phone call from a forensic genealogist hired by the Navy to find the surviving family members from those killed on the USS Oklahoma. It was the genealogist who told the Rythers of unidentified bodies.

Harold explained Mary Ann and her cousins all submitted DNA samples, but the samples from them stemmed from the maternal side. Only one sample was submitted from the paternal side thanks to Drwall’s first cousin — a man living in the country of Poland.

The Rythers were able to contact him, having visited for a vacation years before, and he agreed to get a sample to the Navy.

“The Navy was able to get it in Poland, and now they had DNA samples from both sides,” Harold said.

Through the samples, the remains of Drwall were identified by his skull, teeth, both of his humerus bones and both femurs.

There was a time, however, the Rythers did not think this day would come.

In 2013, they were told the operation was shutting down despite first hearing the operation “was in full swing.” The group that had been managing the project, called the Joint POW / MIA Accounting Command — or JPAC — merged with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency — DPAA — in 2015 and was headed by Army Lt. Gen. Michael Linnington. After JPAC had given the Rythers doubts about whether Drwall would be identified, Linnington assured them by the end of 2015 all the remains would be exhumed.

“He promised us that by the end of the year that every body would be out of the ground and every body would be in a lab. He did it,” Harold said.

The first identification from this effort was made the next year. Linnington invited Harold and Mary Ann to Omaha, Neb., to see how the identification process worked. Harold said there were 40-some tables, twice the size of ping-pong tables, in a hangar at an Air Force base with piles of bones stacked so high that adding even one more could cause it to collapse. Each bone examined would be matched if possible, categorized and then an effort would be made to assemble a skeleton that might be one person.

From there, a tiny chip of the bones were sent to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab in Dover, Del., for testing.

FINAL RESTING PLACE

This Aug. 5, on what would have been Drwall’s 105th birthday, a full military funeral is planned in Thomas, W.Va. For years an empty grave has been designated for Drwall on the chance he would return home.

Cmdr. Colleen Lowe, POW / MIA Identifications at Navy Casualty, met with the Rythers and detailed the process for returning Drwall to his final resting place.

Harold explained the remains will be flown commercially from an air base in Omaha in a coffin — and in full uniform. A military escort will be on the flight and will oversee the transfer of the coffin to the funeral home from the Pittsburgh International Airport. Harold and Mary Ann hope to be at the gate waiting for Drwall.

From Pittsburgh, a hearse will take the coffin to the funeral home in Davis, W.Va., right outside his hometown. Harold said once the funeral home delivers the body to the cemetery, a military honor guard will handle everything from there.

“Cmdr. Lowe said there will be a Navy admiral there to present Mary Ann with the flag,” Harold said.

Mary Ann, 83, is the oldest living relative and was the first to be told Drwall was found. She then informed everyone else in her family, who plan to attend the funeral.

“We’re going to have closure, they’re going to have closure, and all his (Drwall’s) nieces and nephews and Mary Ann’s cousins will be at the funeral,” Harold said.

PRESERVATION PROJECT

For years and especially after the rumors about the project originally shutting down in 2013, Harold and Mary Ann have been strong advocates for the effort to identify and return remains. They even founded the USS Oklahoma Remains Preservation Project to continue to fight for families of those who have not been identified yet. Harold said about 50 are remaining to be identified.

The Rythers said they will continue to speak out about the project and drum up public interest.

Mary Ann said her family knew of the work the couple had done, and everyone is very excited that Drwall finally was found.

In a 2013 Tribune Chronicle story, Mary Ann said she didn’t know if in her lifetime they would ever find his remains. Now, she has the closure she’s been longing for.

“I am so happy. At first, there were tears but they were happy tears,” Mary Ann said.

“The only reason I’m really doing this is for my grandparents. They anticipated he would be returned to the cemetery where they purchased a plot for him. It was never filled, and it’s still there. That’s the plot I want to put his remains in,” she said.

nhawthorne@tribtoday.com

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