When the Japanese launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor during the Second World War, hundreds of American Sailors, Marines, various other military personnel and even civilians lost their lives. Among them was Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Lorentz Hultgren, who was serving aboard the USS Oklahoma (BB-37). In December 2022, the late Sailor’s family received an unexpected gift: letters that were thought to have been lost forever.
Loss of the USS Oklahoma (BB-37)
Following the Spanish Civil War, the USS Oklahoma joined other vessels with the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, performing routine patrols and being used in training exercises. On the morning of December 7, 1941, the day of the Japanese attack, the vessel was moored on Battleship Row, along with the USS Arizona (BB-39), Utah (BB-31/AG-16), Nevada (BB-36), Pennsylvania (BB-38), West Virginia (BB-48), California (BB-44), Maryland (BB-46) and Tennessee (BB-43).
Among the first vessels targeted by enemy aircraft, she suffered three torpedo strikes. The first two caused damaged to her anti-torpedo bulge and the sounding tubes from the adjacent fuel bunkers. This prompted some from Oklahoma‘s crew to run to her anti-aircraft guns, only to find out they couldn’t fire the weaponry, as the firing locks were in the ship’s armory. The rest either sought shelter in her third deck or manned battle stations below the waterline.
While the first two torpedoes failed to break through the hull, the third did, causing Oklahoma to capsize. As they evacuated, her crew were strafed by enemy fire and forced to contend with additional torpedo strikes. After less than 12 minutes, the battleship rolled over, with many of her crew trapped within the hull. A rescue effort immediately began, but suffered difficulties, due to a multitude of risks.
It was determined that, overall, 429 men aboard the USS Oklahoma either lost their lives or were deemed missing following the attack of Pearl Harbor. A number received awards for their efforts during the assault, including Father Aloysius Schmitt, a US Navy chaplain who helped 12 crewmen escape through a porthole on the vessel, sacrificing himself. Others were Medal of Honor recipients Ensign Francis C. Flaherty and Seaman James R. Ward, who gave their lives so their comrades could escape.
USS Oklahoma Project
Following the loss of the USS Oklahoma, efforts were made to identify those who had perished. Sadly, hundreds couldn’t be, with 388 Sailors and Marines still unaccounted for as of 2015. This prompted the launch of the USS Oklahoma Project, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency‘s (DPAA) mission to identify the battleship’s unknowns.
The remains of the unknowns were exhumed from Honolulu’s National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific – known as the “Punchbowl” – and transported to laboratories in Hawaii and Nebraska. Through the use of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequencing, the project was able to identify 355 crewmen who were aboard Oklahoma on December 7, 1941.
The USS Oklahoma Project concluded on the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the remains of those who could not be identified were subsequently reinterred at the Punchbowl.
Navy Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Lorentz Hultgren
Lorentz Emanuel Hultgren was born on May 15, 1918 in Washington State. After enlisting in the US Navy and completing boot camp, he was assigned to the USS Oklahoma on January 9, 1938. A machinist’s mate 2nd class, he served aboard the battleship with his brother-in-law, Fireman First Class Chester Ernest Seaton.
Hultgren was aboard Oklahoma when the Japanese launched their attack on Pearl Harbor. Following the assault, he was deemed missing in action (MIA) or lost at sea, with the belief being he had lost his life in the capsized battleship.
On February 22, 2018, the DPAA announced the Sailor had officially been identified under the USS Oklahoma Project. Following his identification, a rosette was placed beside his name on the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. The symbol indicates that a missing serviceman has since been accounted for.
An unexpected discovery
Decades after the attack on Pearl Harbor, James Hamilton, a resident of Everett, Washington, purchased a book from a used bookstore in Tacoma. When he returned home, he opened its pages and discovered an envelope containing two letters dated March 10, 1942 and December 18, 1944. They were from the Navy and addressed to a woman named Lillian Hultgren.
Hamilton read through the letters and found they were official responses to ones Hultgren had sent to the Navy, inquiring about Lorentz’s remains and personal effects.
The first, written by Chief of Bureau Randall Jacobs, said, “In view of the fact that [Lorentz Hultgren’s] body was not recovered, the rings and watch that he wore probably will not be recovered,” adding, “The Commandant, Fourteenth Naval District, having jurisdiction over all Naval activities at Pearl Harbor, T.H., advises that effort is being made by the Naval Authorities to salvage the personal effects of the men who lost their lives in the disaster.”
Jacobs ended his letter by saying, “Taking this opportunity to extend to you sincere sympathy in the loss of your son.”
The second letter was written by Lt. Cmdr. R.H. Tanck of the US Navy Yard at Pearl Harbor and informed Hultgren that Lorentz’s remains had been buried, unidentified, with full military honors at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. “Although all bodies of those who died in their post of duty on the U.S.S. Oklahoma have now been recovered, due to the inaccessibility to reach them for so long a time, they could not be identified,” he wrote.
Providing some closure to Lorentz Hultgren’s family
The 76-year-0ld Hamilton, himself a veteran, hoped to track down the Hultgren family to return the long-lost letters. Speaking to The News Tribune, he said, “There was probably a family there in Tacoma who would be interested in those. These are important papers. They were very important to me. And for me, just to have them and end up in the trash when I pass … it was too sad a thought.”
He subsequently reached out to The News Tribune for help in tracking the family down, as Lorentz Hultgren and his wife, Beatrice, hadn’t had any children. Following his death, she remarried and had children, but had lost touch with her first husband’s family. However, thanks to the help of an amateur genealogist in California, Hamilton was able to locate one of Hultgren’s family members in October 2022.
Forty-year-old Terry Hughes is Lorentz Hultgren’s first cousin, twice removed. In December 2022, The News Tribune returned the letters to Hughes, who shared that her grandmother had grown up in the same house as the late Navy Sailor. She also revealed her grandmother wouldn’t talk about him.
“She would just say I had a cousin who died in Pearl Harbor and they never found him,” she said. “She just wished she had known what happened. Did he just disappear? Or did he get killed? I think knowing that his bones had been identified would have put her mind at ease, knowing that he definitely had been recovered.”
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As for Hamilton’s efforts to locate her, Hughes shared she was incredibly grateful, saying, “It’s amazing to me that somebody found it and was willing to actually try to pass it back to the family instead of just tossing it away.” She added that she plans to put the letters with the rest of the momentoes related to her family’s history.