(WASHINGTON) — The remains of two sailors from the Civil War’s USS Monitor arrived at Washington’s Dulles Airport Thursday morning in preparation for their burial Friday at Arlington National Cemetery. The remains of the two unidentified sailors were found inside the turret of the iconic ironclad ship when it was found in the waters off of Cape Hatteras, N.C., in 2002.
The Union ironclad sank in a storm off the cape on Dec. 31, 1862, nine months after its landmark sea battle with the Confederate ironclad, the CSS Virginia — previously known as the Merrimack. The two sailors were among the 16 believed to have perished with the ship when it sank to the ocean floor. Fifty other sailors were able to survive the ship’s sinking.
The Navy plans to bury the two unidentified sailors on the 151st anniversary of its encounter with the Virginia in the Battle of Hampton Roads. The battle of the ironclads was considered a draw, but the era of wooden ships was over.
For the past decade the Navy has tried to identify the sailors’ remains through genealogical research and forensic work conducted at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii, the same lab that identifies the remains of Americans recovered from the battlefields of Korea and Vietnam.
Though their identities still remain to be determined through DNA analysis, the forensic work determined that both were Caucasians who stood about 5-feet-7, one was in his late teens to early 20s, the other in his 30s.
A year ago, clay models of what they may have looked like were made public after a forensic reconstruction of their skulls.
The two flag-draped caskets were transported from Hawaii aboard Delta Airlines flights. The plane that arrived at Dulles was a connecting flight from Atlanta.
Following military custom and the law, Navy officers and a Navy Ceremonial Guard were on the windswept tarmac as part of the Dignified Transfer to escort the remains to two waiting hearses.
The plane’s passengers remained aboard the aircraft as airport workers made preparations to off-load the caskets from the plane’s cargo hold onto a conveyor belt. Throughout the Dignified Transfer many of the passengers could be seen peering through the plane’s windows snapping photos with their phones. The ceremony was also witnessed by people inside the terminal looking out the picture windows by the plane’s airport gate.
As each casket was moved down the conveyor belt it was greeted by a Navy chaplain and other Navy officers who stood at attention and saluted the remains.
As the chaplain said a brief prayer over each casket, airport workers could be seen bowing their heads in prayer.
Sailors from the Ceremonial Guard then approached to carry solemnly each casket to its hearse.
The burial of the two sailors has generated nationwide interest. Juan Garcia, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, the senior official on hand for Thursday’s arrival, said the interest is easy to explain.
“This resonates for the Navy, for the Navy’s and for the whole country. Everyone has a stake in this,” he told ABC News.
He described it as a message that carries over to today’s service members.
“The sense of ’thank you, folks,’ for paying the last full measure of devotion, for being willing to raise their right hand, to go into harm’s way. And fulfilling our promise to bring them home and to lay them to rest properly, even if it takes a century and a half to do so,” Garcia said.
Navy officials have said that these sailors could be the last two Navy personnel from the Civil War to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, a cemetery established during the Civil War on Robert E. Lee’s estate.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Aaron Smith, CNN
Jackie Wattles, CNN
Jill Martin, CNN
Doug Criss, CNN Newswire