BILLINGS — A Wyoming family received news more than 80 years in the making this week.
The remains of a U.S. Navy crewman who was killed in Pearl Harbor have been positively identified as Herman Schmidt of Sheridan, Wyoming.
Schmidt was aboard the USS Oklahoma in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 when the base was attacked by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service.
The USS Oklahoma sank with most of its crew still on board after being struck by torpedos and planes. Schmidt was one of 429 crew members to die with the ship.
From 1941 to 1944, Navy crews worked to recover the remains of the deceased.
The remains were buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific—or "Punchbowl"— in Honolulu.
Gene Maestas works at the memorial cemetery and told MTN News on Thursday the remains of 388 individuals from the USS Oklahoma were buried in 62 different gravesites at the memorial following their recovery. The graves were marked as unknowns and oftentimes contained the remains of multiple individuals.
Schmidt's remains were never identified, along with others aboard the ship. Until recently.
In 2015, the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) was tasked with exhuming and analyzing the rest of the remains buried in the memorial cemetery.
According to Maestas, 358 bodies were identified by the DPAA through this process. The rest of the remains were returned to be buried at the memorial cemetery in Honolulu.
In 2021, the DPAA identified Schmidt's remains among the 358 through dental, genealogical, and anthropological analysis and began searching for surviving family members to properly notify—but it wasn't until 2023 that the news was made public.
On Tuesday, a press release was sent out by DPAA regarding the identification. MTN News contacted the Navy Service Casualty office to get the family's information but was told the family does not wish to speak with the media. The office also said that Schmidt's body will be moved to Arlington National Cemetery and a funeral service is being planned for surviving family in February.
Photos of the gravesite
The identification of Schmidt means a lot to people in the area around Pearl Harbor, including some who never knew him but had a special connection.
Bruce Almeida, who lives in Hawaii near the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, is an amateur photographer who's very familiar with the memorial.
Almeida is also a veteran, and he told MTN on Wednesday he felt a need to give back to veterans like him.
When Almeida and his wife moved to Hawaii in 2005, he was searching for something to occupy his free time.
"She was working, and I’m retired, and I didn’t know what to do,” Almeida said. "I started working with Boy Scouts of America, and they were doing Eagle (Scout) projects at the memorial here in Honolulu."
Almeida explained he was given special military access that civilians do not have, so he dedicated much of his time to cleaning up the memorial.
He was told by a man working at the memorial that he was looking for ways to give back to other veterans.
“He said, ‘There’s so much you can do since you’re asking what you can do to give back. I have a list of people constantly writing me and saying, ‘Do you have any (way to take pictures of the memorial)?' and he didn’t have the time,” Almeida said. “People are asking for requests of the grave because they can’t come here to Hawaii. Everybody can’t easily come to Hawaii."
So Almeida got to work filling requests for photographs. But he decided to go above and beyond, photographing each name and uploading them to Find A Grave, regardless of if they were requested or not.
“I would go there, trim the grass around the headstone itself, and then I would put an American flag, clean it up, make sure there was no dust or dirt, and take a photo of it and send it to the family," Almeida said. "My wife would say I was married to Punchbowl more than I was married to her with as much time as I spent at Punchbowl and the memorials."
Almeida said many have called to thank him, but he doesn't do it for anyone individually.
"People call me all the time or email me all the time, saying things like, ‘Thanks for doing this!’ I don’t do this for any individual, I do it for all of them. I felt like, this is how I give back to the men who deserve it more than me. People say, 'No they don’t deserve it more than you,’ but they deserve it in my mind more than me. They died in the line," Almeida said. “Even if they didn’t ask me, I felt it was a way to say, ‘Here!’ So if you look at how many memorials I have on find-a-grave, it’s tens of thousands."
While Almeida had to stop fulfilling requests for photos due to health reasons, he is thrilled to hear about Schmidt's identification. Almeida photographed Schmidt's name in 2013 on a memorial wall and again on his post at the USS Oklahoma Memorial in Honolulu.
Schmidt's remains were buried at Punchbowl before being exhumed for identification, and his name is on two memorials at the USS Oklahoma Memorial.
Now, 10 years later, that name holds much more weight.
“I didn’t know him. I’ve done so many graves. I’m glad they found him, identified him. He’s going home to where his family wants him to be,” Almeida said. “It’d be great if all of them could be identified. When Punchbowl’s getting smaller it’s a good thing."
Almeida said he knows how hard it can be to be states away from where a loved one is buried.
"I lost my father, and my mother buried him in another state. It was so hard to go, you know on Christmas, birthdays, whatever, it’s hard to go there. Well, it’s even harder to visit them here in Hawaii," Almeida said. “If it was me I’d want that to happen, that I get home and with family."
Those who are unable to travel to the memorial but wish to honor the lost lives can do so as long as they have access to the internet.
“Who knew, when he was placed in the ground, that he would ever be identified? Because we didn’t know how to identify. That didn’t exist," Almeida said. "I’m glad, and again, I hope Punchbowl is empty of all the unknowns and that they’re all identified. Because it’s got to be one of the worst things a family could probably live through for years, not knowing, is he really dead?”