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Last Flight of Bomber 31

Bringing Home MIAs
by Peter Tyson

Bomber 31 homepage

The POW/MIA recovery expedition to Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula as chronicled in "Last Flight of Bomber 31" achieved its primary goal: finding, repatriating, and identifying remains of lost American servicemen. Specifically, forensic experts were able to identify two of the PV-1 Ventura bomber's seven crew members—mechanic Clarence Fridley and gunner James Palko. "The final page of the final chapter of this sad part of their lives is finally written," says Larry Greer of the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO), which organized the expedition. Efforts continue to try to identify more members of that doomed flight, which went down in southern Kamchatka on March 25, 1944.

Such an effort is just one piece of a much larger effort that has dozens of U.S.-sponsored search-and-recovery expeditions working worldwide each year, many of which meet with success. In 2001, for example, forensic anthropologists working for the U.S. Army's Hawaii-based Central Identification Laboratory (CILHI), which does the actual recovery and identifications, identified the remains of no fewer than 94 service personnel. These are all young men who lost their lives while serving their country in World War II or any conflict since—men who have been missing in action for decades, their families never knowing what happened to them.

"We're carrying on an ancient tradition, the return of war heroes," the Hon. Jerry Jennings, DPMO's director, told a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in August 2002. "Spartan women often said to their sons before they went off to battle, 'Come back alive, behind your shield, or dead, on your shield.' Alive or dead, they wanted them back."

The United States wants its dead back so fiercely that it spends more than $100 million a year trying to find and retrieve them as well as identify them and give them a proper burial with full military honors. Nearly 600 military and civilian personnel work full-time on the POW/MIA effort. Their task is staggering, as the combined total of U.S. service personnel from World War II to the present listed either as "missing in action" or "killed in action, body not recovered" exceeds 88,000. But DPMO is not daunted, and it has achieved an enormous amount since its founding in 1992.

In the field

DPMO's first priority is to bring back live American POWs. Even today, reports of captive Americans periodically come out of Korea, Russia, and Southeast Asia. The U.S. actively looks into all such reports. Vietnam, for example, has agreed to let DPMO officials conduct investigations, on short notice, of so-called "live sightings"—cases in which someone reports having seen an American POW or MIA alive. In recent years, investigators have carried out about 120 on-site investigations or reported live sightings in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. All of these sightings have proven to be false alarms, however, and to date the U.S. has found no evidence that any Americans are still being held as POWs in any of these countries or regions.

“Here's the dogtag of the serviceman, and we'll take you to where his remains are buried.”

DPMO's second priority, and the one that the bulk of its resources go toward, is to find, bring back, and put names to the remains of deceased American personnel. The search-and-recovery process for a missing military service member or civilian often begins with archival research in the U.S. or in the country where a serviceman is believed to have been lost. Sometimes American authorities will contact a foreign government about investigating, say, an aircraft crash site; sometimes foreign officials will call their counterparts in the U.S. with newly uncovered evidence.

It even happens sometimes that former combatants or their families will suddenly come forward with new information. "In Vietnam, we've had people who've walked into either the American Embassy or our POW/MIA detachment there in Hanoi, just walked in with a dogtag or a fragment of bone," says Greer. "They'll say, 'My grandfather has had this for years, and we want to do what we can for the American family. Here's the dogtag of the serviceman, and we'll take you to where his remains are buried.'"

DPMO or other agencies negotiate with the relevant government to do so-called joint field activities. Each of these forays lasts about 35 days and may involve more than 100 individuals. Team members interview witnesses and inspect sites. If they decide an excavation is called for, the Hawaii-based laboratory, CILHI, arranges for a team like that deployed to Kamchatka to undertake the work.

These teams consist of members from the four service branches. An Army or Marine captain or major leads the crew, which typically includes a senior noncommissioned officer, two to four mortuary specialists, and at least one civilian forensic anthropologist. There is also an interpreter, photographer, medic, and, where needed, explosive ordnance disposal experts. In some rare cases, immediate family of those sought may visit the excavation site at their own expense, but such visits are discouraged due to the hazards of unexploded ordnance and, in the tropics, exotic diseases.

The CILHI forensic anthropologist is in charge of the excavation. He or she follows strict procedures, carefully gridding the area to be excavated, sifting soil through quarter-inch screens to capture even the smallest bones or artifacts, and taking numerous documentary photographs. After clearance from the host country, the team flies any remains of American personnel back to the U.S. in flag-draped coffins.

In the lab

At CILHI, forensic specialists try to determine the age, sex, and race of individuals. They also look for any signs of trauma or healed fractures as well as at the arrangement, number, and other aspects of the deceased's teeth. Because of the skeletal nature of most remains from past wars, experts identify many of those whose identities are restored by comparing their dentition with dental records.

In nearly half of all cases, however, testing of mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, is also brought to bear. For that, the specialists need blood samples from maternally related family members. DPMO and the military services have an active outreach program to contact families for this purpose. (For more on how mtDNA works, see Identifying Remains with DNA.)

“Mom held on because she felt that our loved one's remains would soon be coming home.”

Details on artifacts such as personal effects or aircraft wreckage are also evaluated, as are circumstantial evidence and eyewitness accounts by, say, surviving crew members or cooperative former enemy personnel.

Reaching closure

When CILHI specialists ascertain the identity of remains, the respective military service casualty or mortuary office contacts the serviceman's family. In most cases, family members have been awaiting such a call for an excruciatingly long time. "I've had a number of younger family members tell me, 'Mom held on because she felt that our loved one's remains would soon be coming home,'" Greer says. "'And within a week after his remains were identified, she quietly passed away.'"

Each military service offers the family a choice: Inter their loved one in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., or have the individual's remains flown home for a private burial. Either way, the government pays for the funeral and accords the serviceman full military honors.

Unidentified remains stay in Hawaii in hopes that CILHI specialists will eventually succeed in identifying them. They include more than 850 unknowns from the Korean War who are buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. When returned to the U.S. a half century ago, these remains were treated with a preservative that has interfered with retrieval of mtDNA samples. But CILHI officials are hopeful that advances in forensic techniques might someday solve such problems. "There's no telling what new technologies might come along," Johnnie Webb, the laboratory's deputy commander, told The National Amvet magazine in 2000. "We've only had DNA analysis since 1994, and with it, we have identified remains that were mysteries to us since the mid-80s."

War by war

World War II: By far the greatest percentage of American MIAs went missing in the Second World War. More than 78,000, or nearly 90 percent of the total number of missing U.S. servicemen, never returned from this conflict. Many were lost at sea or buried as unknowns in cemeteries across Europe.

Every year, CILHI identifies more soldiers from World War II (including 36 of the 94 identified in 2001). DPMO and CILHI seek American dead from this war not just in Europe but around the world. The inaccessibility of a place where servicemen were lost is not an issue. In November 2000, for example, CILHI identified the remains of 19 marines retrieved from remote Butaritari Island in the South Pacific, where they had died in a battle with Japanese forces in 1942. Among them was Sgt. Clyde Thomason, the first enlisted marine awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II. In August 2002, CILHI sent teams to Tibet to excavate two crash sites of C-46 bombers lost while "flying the Hump" over the Himalayas from India to China.

Korean War: More than 8,100 Americans remain unaccounted for from the war in Korea; most disappeared in the North. In an effort to locate as many of them as possible and bring them home, DPMO has negotiated joint recovery operations in North Korea since 1996—a remarkable achievement, considering the U.S. is still technically at war with that nation. CILHI teams have repatriated remains of at least 178 individuals; 13 have been identified.

Recently the North Koreans granted permission for CILHI teams to search for remains around the Chosin Reservoir, scene of some of the war's most brutal fighting. The sites may hold the remains of more than 1,000 American servicemen. DPMO is also seeking access to several POW camps along the Yalu River, which forms the border between North Korea and China.

Vietnam War: As of mid-November 2002, 1,903 Americans remained unaccounted for from this conflict, including 1,446 from Vietnam, 391 from Laos, 58 from Cambodia, and 8 from China. Since 1973, teams have repatriated, identified, and buried on American soil the remains of nearly 700 U.S. service personnel who never returned from Southeast Asia. Recently CILHI identified the last American servicemen to die in the Vietnam War—nine of 18 Marines killed at Koh Tang, Cambodia, a few days after the war ended on April 30, 1975.

“You came all this way and expended all this effort for one person?”

"Last known alive" cases—those involving MIAs who are believed to have survived their initial falling into enemy hands—are a high priority. The U.S. originally identified 296 such cases throughout Southeast Asia. Intensive investigations have shown that 187 are deceased, while the remains of 54 of them have been located, flown home, and identified. The work goes on.

Cold War: About 130 Americans are still missing from the Cold War. Most vanished while flying spy missions along the Soviet border. A joint U.S.-Russian commission is working to investigate both American and Russian MIAs from the Cold War. Other countries are aiding the search as well. China, for one, is helping with a long-standing Cold War case in Manchuria involving two American civilian fliers, Robert Snoddy and Norman Schwartz, whose C-47 plane crashed there in 1952.

Desert Storm: Remarkably, only one American serviceman is listed as "missing-captured" from the war with Iraq. He is Navy Captain Scott Speicher, who was lost on the first night of Desert Storm while flying a combat mission over Iraq. But one is not too few for DPMO. During a recent trip to Kuwait, which still has more than 600 of its own POWs in Iraq, DPMO head Jerry Jennings surprised a Kuwaiti reporter when he told him that he had come to seek information on Speicher. "The reporter appeared startled," Jennings recalls. "He said, 'You came all this way and expended all this effort for one person?'" Indeed, Jennings says that many countries marvel at the U.S.'s single-minded determination to bring back every single one of its war dead. (Of course, it bears noting that even if they had the will, many countries unfortunately do not have the resources that the U.S. has to undertake such extensive investigations.)

Afghanistan and the war on terrorism: Fortunately, no American service personnel are currently unaccounted for from Afghanistan or the global war on terrorism. But one can be sure that DPMO, CILHI, and other agencies of the U.S. government are standing by, ready to bring back any missing personnel at a moment's notice—either behind or on their shields.

Note: A more up-to-date version of this article appears on NOVA's Missing in MiG Alley Web site.

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In 1998, experts used mitochondrial DNA testing to identify remains from the Tomb of the Unknowns' Vietnam crypt as those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Blassie, who was later buried in his hometown with full military honors.

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POW camp

The U.S. aggressively pursues all rumors of American POWs still being held, though it has never found evidence that any still are in captivity. Here, American POWs at a Communist camp in Korea in the early 1950s.

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Passing buckets

Local villagers in Vietnam assist a U.S. recovery team by collecting mud that is then meticulously searched for any remains.

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Artifacts excavated from aircraft crash sites can help forensic anthropologists identify remains of crew members. Specialists recovered these from the spot in southern China where a B-24 Liberator crashed in World War II.

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Buddies crying

Nine out of ten missing American personnel—more than 78,000 individuals—were lost during World War II.

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Soldiers and body bag

Two combat-weary soldiers in Vietnam prepare to remove the body of a fallen comrade.

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In a chilling wind in Beijing, remains of World War II servicemen begin the long journey home.

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Last Flight of Bomber 31 Web Site Content
Bombers of World War II

Bombers of World War II
A brief history of ten classic American bombers.

Tour Kamchatka

Tour Kamchatka
Explore this rugged, 800-mile-long volcanic peninsula.

Bringing Home MIAs

Bringing Home MIAs
The U.S. effort to find, identify, and bury all lost service personnel.

Identifying Remains with DNA

Identifying Remains with DNA
Find out why mitochondrial DNA is so useful to forensic scientists.

Peter Tyson is editor in chief of NOVA online.

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