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After more than a century, two U.S. sailors return home for burial

Times-Mirror Staff Photo/Beverly Denny Sailors from the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard escort unknown remains in transport to Arlington National Cemetery at Dulles International Airport March 7. Two sets of remains were recovered from the USS Monitor, which sank in a storm in 1862.
More than a century and a half ago two sailors on the USS Monitor lost their lives fighting for their country.

On Thursday, their remains were honored with a dignified transfer ceremony at Washington Dulles International Airport where they were taken away to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The burial will likely be the last at Arlington of any soldiers, sailors or Marines who fought in the American Civil War.

The remains of two unknown sailors who were lost on board the USS Monitor when the ship sank Dec. 31, 1862, in a storm off Cape Hatteras, N.C. had been in Hawaii for more than 10 years while officials with what is now the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command attempted to identify them.

While those efforts continue, according to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Juan Garcia, it was time to bring the men home for a proper burial.

As sailors with U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard met the two caskets at Washington Dulles International Airport Thursday, hordes of onlookers on the plane that carried the remains and passengers awaiting flights lined the glass to honor the men.

"It's been a difficult week. We've had all the budget challenges and limitations of sequestration. It was a very powerful moment I thought to see not only our ceremonial guard but to see a terminal of civilians all stopping from a distance to take pictures and the civilian ground crew lined up all to take pictures on their own. I think at some of level, the Navy and the station recognizes that the ceremonies and the rituals that have helped define our Navy for the last couple of centuries still resignate with the country," Garcia said.

The USS Monitor, designed by Swedish native John Ericson, was built in 118 days in Brooklyn, N.Y. and was the nation's first ironclad warship, according to Navy Lt. Lauryn Dempsey, public information officer.

The ship, commissioned Feb. 25, 1862, fought the first battle between two ironclads when it engaged the CSS Virginia in the Battle of Hampton Roads. The CSS Virginia was constructed as a casemate ironclad using the raised and cut down original hull and steam engines of the USS Merrimack.

The Battle of Hampton Roads on March 7-8, 1862, was the first time iron-armored ships clashed in naval warfare and signaled the beginning of a new era of naval warfare, Dempsey said.

"The USS Monitor was arguably the stealth fighter of its day. It was uncharted territory in terms of its technology. And that engagement that took place 151 years ago tomorrow was a decisive evolution in that war … the first clash of two ironclads," Garcia said. "It's hard to imagine what they would be thinking today and what they're descendents will be thinking about tomorrow. But undoubtedly, those folks played a decisive role in key events in our country and were part of the crew in a state-of-the-art vessel."

The vessels fought at point blank range. The sailors, Garcia said, were so close that could scream at each other.

Months after the Battle of Hampton Roads the Monitor sank Dec. 31, 1862. Sixteen sailors died in the storm. Her wreck was discovered in 1973 and was designated the nation's first national marine sanctuary, managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In 1998, the Navy, NOAA and the Mariner's Museum in Newport News started working to recover artifacts from the Monitor. During the summer of 2002, while trying to recover the ship's 150-ton gun turret, Navy divers discovered human remains inside the turret.

While the men remain unidentified, Garcia said bringing the men home to be buried in Arlington was keeping with a centuries long commitment.

"I think for the entire Navy family and a larger sense for the country, it's delivering on a commitment we make to everyone of our sailors, everyone of our Marines. You will to the maximum state possible, you will be brought home. If you do … pay the ultimate full measure of personal sacrifice, you will be afforded a proper, dignified final resting place, even if it takes a century and a half," Garcia said.

"There's every reason to believe that tomorrow will likely be the last burial at Arlington of Civil War participants," the assistant secretary added.

Efforts to identify the sailors will continue, he said.

" … There's decades worth of work that's gone into this sophisticated, incredibly detailed work and the genealogical research to make contact with these families. They've been able to narrow it down very closely, but not decisively. So, we'll continue to do so," Garcia said.

As DNA technology continues to progress, there is high hopes that the families of the Monitor sailors will one day be notified that their ancestors have been found.

"The experts seem to think so. And that's why they're not turning off the effort. There's breakthroughs in this field and the work they do in Hawaii right now continues to be done not only in our current wars … but they're still in the hills of Laos and Korea as well finding remains, doing everything they can to bring some piece of mind to those families who want to know for sure what their loved ones last moments were. We want to afford them that proper, final resting place," Garcia said.


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