More than seven decades after Pearl Harbor, George Sternisha of suburban Crest Hill has finally received the news he has waited for his entire life.
Sternisha’s uncle, Michael Galajdik died in Pearl Harbor aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma in December of 1941. But his body was never identified, one of nearly 400 from the Oklahoma buried in mass graves in Honolulu.
It’s a heartbreaking part of the 69-year-old Sternisha’s family lore which has spanned decades, births and deaths. But on a recent phone call he got the news his family had been waiting for.
His uncle was finally coming home.
"I came out and said, 'Do you have a positive identification of my uncle?' And they said, 'Yes I do!' And at that point, I got goose bumps!”
After the attack, the bodies of the sailors and marines had been entombed in the capsized Oklahoma for some two years. When their remains were finally recovered they would eventually be buried in 45 mass graves in a Honolulu cemetery. Two years ago the Department of Defense launched a major effort to disinter all of the unidentified crew from the Oklahoma to apply modern science in hopes of getting positive IDs.
"They were separated to like body parts, for the most part," says Rear Admiral Michael Franken, director of the Defense Department’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency told NBC5 at the time the project was launched. "Our task will be to disinter about five graves a week over the course of the next six months, then in the span of five years, make those identifications."
After the torpedoed Oklahoma rolled over in Pearl Harbor, a few dozen crew members were rescued by workers who were able to cut holes in the hull. But the giant ship’s story is one of the most haunting in the annals of the Navy. Taps on the hull gave clues to where other crew members were trapped. But those taps ceased after three days.
In all, 429 sailors and marines died. Of the 388 unidentified crew from the Oklahoma, 18 were from Illinois. Sternisha and his sister both submitted samples to the Navy lab to help in the efforts to identify their uncle.
"I mean, they had like 60,000 bones that they had to get DNA on, each one separately," Sternisha says. "It’s just hard to comprehend!"
In early 1942, Sternisha’s mother, Galajdik’s sister, received a telegram informing her that his body could not be positively identified, but that he had most certainly perished. It was his mother’s dream, he said, that her brother’s body would somehow be found.
"She always prayed, and talked a little bit about it," he said. "This is her wish come true."
Sternisha says he hopes to travel to Honolulu and personally bring his uncle home. The family already has a plot and headstone at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Will County.
So far, the Navy says, 68 crew members from the Oklahoma have been identified. And the work continues.
"I would just tell other families, just keep praying," said Sternisha. "You know, don’t give up the faith!"