Honolulu’s Puowaina Crater—popularly known as “Punchbowl”—serves as the site of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, a shrine to US war dead. In 1954, remains of an unidentified US serviceman, disinterred from a North Korean gravesite and repatriated, were buried there.
Some 50 years later, a scientist from the nearby Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command saw a possible mistake in the soldier’s dental records; someone, decades before, may have incorrectly marked a tooth reconstruction. It would be a simple but crucial mistake. Suddenly, this coldest of cold cases turned hot again.
The course of this case is but one of many signs that the United States military is making huge progress accounting for the nation’s fallen warriors. Old-fashioned detective work, combined with such modern tools as deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing, has made once-miraculous identifications seem almost routine.
Just last year, the remains of World War I Army Pvt. Francis Lupo were positively identified an astounding 88 years after he was killed in northern France.
On May 2, five Army Air Forces airmen missing from World War II were publicly identified by the Department of Defense. They were 1st Lt. Cecil W. Biggs, 1st Lt. William L. Pearce, 2nd Lt. Thomas R. Yenner, TSgt. Russell W. Abendschoen, and SSgt. George G. Herbst.
German forces then “opened the dikes in the region where the plane crashed and flooded the area before any remains could be recovered,” DOD stated. After the war, Dutch citizens recovered and buried the remains. A US team later disinterred them, and they “were reburied as group remains in 1950.”
Despite the passage of 62 years, a flooding, separated remains, and burials and disinterments on two continents, the JPAC scientists were finally able to positively ID the five crewmen, using what can now be called the usual methods.
Ever since his 1918 wartime death in the Second Battle of the Marne, Lupo had lain unnoticed in a shallow French grave. His remains were discovered in 2003 by chance by archaeologists looking for ancient artifacts. Mitochondrial DNA evidence from Lupo’s niece, Rachel Kleisinger, combined with a scrap of leather wallet bearing his name, clinched the identification.
On average, JPAC each month identifies about six persons formerly listed as missing in action, command data indicate. The Pentagon now has regular announcements identifying previously unknown troops—and groups of troops—from Vietnam, Korea, even World War II. In some cases, no kinfolk remain, but, in other cases, family members express profound gratitude.
Three announcements in the span of a week this spring from DOD’s POW/Missing Personnel Office illustrate the success officials now have identifying long-dead servicemen. Their stories are told in briefs published with this story.
The Department of Defense on April 30 announced it had identified the remains of Army Cpl. Pastor Balanon Jr. In 1950, Balanon was with the Army’s 8th Cavalry Regiment near Unsan, North Korea, when the unit was surrounded by Chinese forces. Some US soldiers escaped, but Balanon went missing.
Scientists later were able to use circumstantial evidence, mitochondrial DNA, dental comparisons, and other forensic tools to positively identify Balanon. He was buried in May, by his family, in Arlington National Cemetery.
“I’ve [chosen] five sets of remains for disinterment, and four have been identified so far,” said Debra A. Prince, a forensic anthropologist at JPAC. In the first case, she said, “the sister was still living. Her grandson came out to receive the remains. He was very emotional.”
The effort owes its existence to pressure from members of the families of US servicemen and -women missing in action in the Vietnam War. A predecessor organization, the US Army Central Identification Laboratory, was founded in 1973 at the height of this clamor. Originally based in Thailand, the center later was moved to Hawaii.
JPAC maintains three other permanent overseas detachments. They are in Bangkok, Thailand, Hanoi, Vietnam, and Vientiane, Laos. However, recovery missions are not limited to the tropical terrain of Southeast Asia, say JPAC officials. They take place all over the world.
In 2006 Pokines worked in another unusual place: a Honolulu mountain ravine so close to JPAC that the lab was visible from the site. Ensign Harry “Bud” Warnke crashed his F-6F Hellcat into the Koolau Mountains in June 1944. The site of the accident has been known for years, but it was highly protected due to its extreme environmental sensitivity.
Army Cpl. Clarence R. Becker had been missing since Dec. 1, 1950, the day that his truck convoy was ambushed near Kunuri, North Korea. He was captured and taken prisoner, and troops held in captivity with Becker “said he died in the North Korean Pyoktong POW Camp 5 around May 1951 from malnutrition and disease,” DOD stated in a news release.
In 2005, after further analyzing records, JPAC exhumed what it thought might be Becker’s grave. “Among other traditional forensic identification tools and circumstantial evidence,” JPAC scientists used dental comparisons for Becker’s identification.
Due to the presence of endangered species, among other restrictions, the JPAC team was not able to dig up soil and sift it through fine screens on-site, looking for artifacts and human remains. Instead, the team had to take the soil elsewhere for inspection. So difficult was the surrounding terrain that there was but one way to do it: vertical lift.
Still, JPAC carried out the task. Warnke’s remains were retrieved, identified, and returned to his sister last year for burial in Indiana.
Nor do all efforts result in a successful identification. Even with spectacular advances in science, the passage of time and violent nature of warfare can preclude identification.
On other occasions, the remains of multiple service members are so commingled their separation is impossible.
“With some cases, there is nothing we can do,” said Prince.
“Every year cases are revived just because new technology is emerging,” said Army Maj. Brian DeSantis, a JPAC spokesman.
(The Navy considers individuals missing at sea to be honorably buried and does not list them as MIA, pointed out JPAC spokesman DeSantis.)
There remains one MIA from the 1991 Persian Gulf War: Lt. Cmdr. Michael S. Speicher, an F/A-18 pilot who was shot down over Iraq. His status was changed from KIA to MIA in 2001.
JPAC typically also conducts five Korean War missions annually, but that varies according to the degree of cooperation received from the North Korean government. It is helpful to have the same JPAC personnel return to large sites requiring multiple missions, so Pokines has been to North Korea’s Chosin Reservoir, site of a brutal Korean War battle, three times.
“We’ve got lots of real restraints on what we can do there,” said Pokines. “And it’s just a very poor country.”
The Hardest PartsDental records for World War II MIAs, on the other hand, are “not too bad,” said Prince. Most of the remaining Vietnam-era MIAs are pilots for whom JPAC can obtain good records and often X-rays.
“DNA analysis is really huge for us,” said Pokines.
Mitochondrial DNA patterns are not unique in the general population, so JPAC scientists combine mtDNA results with other evidence to make a positive identification. Last year, for instance, JPAC used both mtDNA and identification tags and other personal effects to identify eight Army soldiers from the US 8th Cavalry Regiment, who were killed by Chinese troops on Nov. 1, 1950.
If researchers have confidence about the location of some remains, JPAC dispatches a small investigative team to the site. They poke around for clues, talk to locals, and generally gauge the difficulty of exhuming remains there.
Recovery missions involve additional personnel and can last upward of two months. Many of the sites are remote locations, so the missions require the sort of portable equipment that might be necessary at an archaeological dig. Much of this gear, from shovels to tents, resides in forward JPAC storage sites around the world.
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is genetic material that is passed directly from generation to generation by a mother. All persons of the same maternal line share the same mtDNA sequences.
MtDNA can be obtained from the unknown’s mother, sister, or brother or his sister’s children, among others.
Anthropologists direct recovery efforts, though key team members can include such specialties as forensic photographers and ordnance disposal technicians. During recovery, the area in question is sectioned into grids, and soil is removed carefully and searched for clues—again, in a manner reminiscent of archaeology.
The case that resulted in the April 18 exhumation at Punchbowl followed this general pattern, even though the location of the remains was known from the start.
Ron Broward, a Korean War veteran who serves as an unpaid and invaluable JPAC consultant, pointed Prince to a group of three sets of remains that had been disinterred from Korean soil by Chinese forces—not the Koreans themselves.
Indeed, case No. 3 of this group was found with two identification tags, according to its file. Before reburial in Hawaii, the remains had been fingerprinted and those prints studied by the FBI. The result: a match with prints known to have come from the individual whose name was on the ID tags.
“Dental and physical discrepancies,” explained Prince.
Could someone simply have used the wrong color, with that mistake carried forward in subsequent copies of the dental records, down to the present day?
Someday soon, the case may have a name, not a number. The remains can then be returned to any surviving family members and finally be given a permanent home.
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An F-35A Lightning II assigned to Hill AFB, Utah,
conducts a training flight with F-16 Fighting Falcons assigned to Kunsan
AB, Republic of Korea, over the city of Gunsan, on Dec. 1, 2017,
in preparation for Vigilant Ace 18.
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