Remains of Pittsfield sailor killed at Pearl Harbor identified

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Editor's note: This article has been updated from its original version to reflect that the DPAA lab at Offutt Air Force Base and its contents have not been compromised due to flooding. 

In August 1940, a young Pittsfield High School graduate joined the Navy. He never came back.

Roman Walter Sadlowski was serving as an electrician's mate, 3rd class, one of 429 crewmen aboard the USS Oklahoma, when it was attacked at Pearl Harbor by Japanese aircraft and hit with multiple torpedoes Dec. 7, 1941. The ship quickly capsized.

For two months, Sadlowski, the son of Polish immigrants Valentine and Marianna Sadlowski of 43 Kent Ave., was considered to be among the missing. Still, they held out hope, according to news articles, that their son survived.

Then, in February 1942, the family received the fateful telegram from a Rear Adm. Randall Jacobs, chief of the Bureau of Navigation. It read: "After exhaustive search it has been found impossible to locate your son ... he has therefore been officially declared to have lost his life in the service of his country as of Dec. 7. The department wishes to express to you its sincerest sympathy."

A memorial parade and plaque followed that May, but Roman Sadlowski's parents never lived to lay their beloved boy to rest.

Now, more than 75 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Navy man's next of kin might finally get a chance to bring him home.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency [DPAA] announced Friday that Sadlowski's remains have been officially identified using modern forensic technology.

According to a DPAA spokeswoman, Sadlowski's remains were first accounted for on Dec. 4, 2018,  just three days before to the 77th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The next of kin, a nephew identified as Joseph Makarski, of Rockland, was notified by a Navy Service Casualty Office representative around Dec. 11, and his remains were officially declared accounted for Dec. 12.

From there, the DPAA worked to put together a full profile on Sadlowski.

"Earlier this week the family was fully briefed — a service casualty officer did the briefing in person," said U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Kristen Duus, public affairs officer for the DPAA. Then Friday's announcement and details on Sadlowski were released to the public.

There are conflicting accounts as to how old Sadlowski was at the time of his death. While some documents, including a memorial plaque and stone that can be found at Memorial Park located off South Street, say that Sadlowski was born June 15, 1920, a service record on file at the Berkshire Athenaeum lists his birthdate as June 21, 1923, indicating that he might have only been 18 at the time of his death, instead of 21. Either way, for the Sadlowski family, it was all too soon.

"We're still taking it all in," Makarski told The Associated Press. Makarski, born shortly after his uncle died, supplied a DNA sample that helped with the identification process. "I didn't know him personally, but I certainly knew of him, and I remember my mother was very fond of him," he said.

In Pittsfield, Sadlowski remains remembered by historians and some distant relatives alike.

"He's like famous," said Ann-Marie Harris, senior technician and first assistant in the Local History and Genealogy Department of the Berkshire Athenaeum. "When he died, they did have a huge to-do and ended up having a memorial made for him," she said. 

Closure for everyone

An Eagle archived story reported that on May 17, 1942, more than 6,000 people attended the ceremonious event called "I Am an American Day." About 34 Berkshire organizations and 2,000 people were set to march in the parade, followed by remarks from, among others, Pittsfield Mayor James Fallon. Sadlowski's records indicate he was also awarded a Purple Heart for his service.

Upon hearing Friday's news of the seaman's remains being identified, Harris said, "Certainly I feel for the family. I hope that the family can finally get some closure on the whole thing.

"As a historian, I actually feel some sort of closure, too. There are so many floating heroes out there you just never know what happened to. We get a lot of calls [at the library] from overseas from people about somebody they've identified but don't know much about. People want to know about them and honor them."

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The remains of crewmen killed on the Oklahoma were recovered over the next several years and interred in the Halawa and Nu'uanu cemeteries, according to a release from the DPAA. In 1947, the remains were disinterred and moved to the Central Identification Laboratory at Schofield Barracks, where laboratory staff were able to confirm the identifications of 35 men from the Oklahoma. The remains that could not be identified were buried in 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu.

In 1949, a military board classified those who could not be identified, including Sadlowski, as nonrecoverable.

For more than 70 years, it appeared that Sadlowski would remain among the 72,737 soldiers killed in World War II who were still unaccounted for. Then, with the use of modern forensic technology, scientists made a breakthrough.

The remains of crewmen buried at the Punchbowl were exhumed for analysis in 2015 by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

Sgt. Duus said that those remains, including Sadlowski's, were sent to the DPAA forensics laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, Neb. Those remains, which included more than 10,000 individual bones and fragments, were "highly co-mingled," said Duus, noting that 388 sets of remains were buried following the war, many found among 61 caskets in 45 graves.

According to his case file, identified among Sadlowski's remains were his right femur, a tooth, left fibula and left coxa [part of the hip].

Sadlowski's remains were identified using a mix of anthropological analysis, circumstantial and material evidence and mitochondrial DNA analysis. While unable to do a successful dental analysis, the mitochondrial DNA was used to trace down Sadlowski's maternal line, matching his nephew, as well as records for a niece. 

No immediate funeral plans have been made for Sadlowski. His remains are still at the Offutt lab in Nebraska, which recently succumbed to heavy flooding.  Ryan Hansen, a spokesman for the 55th Wing Public Affairs Office at the base told The Eagle in an email, "Thankfully the DPAA lab didn’t experience any flooding. It is on the part of the installation that is at a much higher elevation." 

Since 1995, Duus said, servicemen and servicewomen have been required to give samples of their own DNA, kept in a repository in Dover, Del. Should anything ever happen, a sample can be tested against that person's own DNA sample, which is a much more reliable way of genetic identification.

Family memories 

In December 2016, the Pittsfield library created an exhibit remembering the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. It featured prominently Sadlowski and Sgt. Edward J. Burns, who died from shrapnel wounds in the attack, which prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to declare war on Japan.

During a visit to the library, Bob Gaudette and his seven siblings crowded around the glass case as if Sadlowski was in it himself. They are among his many surviving relatives.

"He was my grandmother's [Helen Gonska's] cousin," said Gaudette. The 61-year-old grew up in Pittsfield and resides in Hinsdale. He's a self-proclaimed World War II history buff.

"My grandmother told me about [Sadlowski] while we were planning going to go to Hawaii in late '90s," he said. "She then told me about the stone and marker, and she gave me an old GE news clipping about him. I still have it in a book upstairs."

After graduating from Pittsfield High School in 1939, Sadlowski worked briefly for the General Electric Co. before joining the Navy.

"My grandmother knew him really well. He was her father's brother's son," said Gaudette, who has visited the USS Oklahoma Memorial site at Pearl Harbor.

Gonska, who was born in 1915, died in 2012. Both she and Sadlowski belonged to Holy Family Church in Pittsfield growing up, the same parish through which Sadlowski was given his final blessings.

"I now have so many more questions for her," Gaudette said of his grandmother.

Gaudette said he has been waiting since the identification project in 2015 in hopes that his distant cousin's remains would be discovered.

"I would love to know exactly what happened to him and where he was when he was killed," he said. "These people gave their lives to freedom. I hope they are able to identify more of them and honor them. There's a lot of lessons to be learned from history."


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