In 1944, three WWII airmen disappeared beneath the waves. Now, there may be hope for the return of their remains. The Department of Defense, which operates the largest forensic anthropology lab in the world, does a skeletal analysis to figure out if the recovered remains belong to more than one individual. Then the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System takes over to conduct a DNA analysis using family samples.
Identifying Lost Crew with Forensics and DNA Analysis
Published: December 3, 2018
Onscreen: Dec 17, 1944: A B-24 bomber was shot down off Croatia. Three airmen disappeared beneath the waves: Pilot Eugene Ford, Navigator Russel C. Landry, and Flight Engineer Charles E. Priest.
Now, there may be hope for the return of their remains. The Department of Defense operates the largest forensic anthropology lab in the world.
Tyler Dunn: It’s my job to do a skeletal analysis blind, so I don’t bias myself.
We were presented with 11 teeth; a right humerus, that’s relatively intact compared to everything else; a fragment of a vertebra; a handful of, sort of, non-diagnostic long bone fragments—we can more or less just tell that they’re bone; some fingers, a bit of a toe, and then most of the lower right leg, so a tibia and a fibula.
The first question I generally ask is the minimum number of individuals. So, we try and figure out if this could be, or is, more than one person.
Based on this case, the skeletal—it’s called M.N.I. or "minimum number of individuals" — the skeletal M.N.I. is one. I have good reason to think that this is one individual.
Onscreen: This conclusion is backed up by the dental analysis.
Dunn: So, I can tell that this is all teeth from one individual, based on tooth shape, the size of the tooth, and more or less what they look like.
Onscreen: It appears that only a single airman was recovered, based on the skeletal evidence. But who was it?
Dunn: We more or less measure how long the tibia is. The stature for this individual that we estimated was right around 5 foot 10.
Onscreen: Yet the skeletal remains alone cannot provide a definitive ID, so they turn to DNA. The Armed Forces Medical Examiner System now takes over.
Timothy McMahon: This is where we take the unknown and we put a name to them.
Onscreen: First they extract DNA from the bones and teeth and then sequence many different regions. Then they compare the sequence against family reference samples until finally a match is confirmed.
Seven months later…
Jim Bell: …so, based on that, the laboratory analysis, established remains of those as First Lieutenant Eugene Ford, serial number Oscar 805804, U.S. Army Air Forces.
Produced and Directed by: Kirk Wolfinger
Written by: Owen Palmquist
Digital Production: Olivia Schmidt
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2018