Long af­ter they died

Mil­i­tary sees surge in iden­ti­fi­ca­tions

The Morning Journal (Lorain, OH) - - NEWS - By SCOTT McFETRIDGE

Nearly 77 years af­ter re­peated tor­pedo strikes tore into the USS Ok­la­homa, killing hun­dreds of sailors and Marines, Car­rie Brown leaned over the re­mains of a ser­vice­man laid out on a ta­ble in her lab and was sur­prised the bones still smelled of burn­ing oil from that hor­rific day at Pearl Har­bor.

It was a vis­ceral re­minder of the cat­a­strophic at­tack that pulled the United States into World War II, and it added an in­ti­macy to the painstak­ing work Brown and hun­dreds of oth­ers are now do­ing to greatly in­crease the num­ber of lost Amer­i­can ser­vice­men who have been iden­ti­fied.

It’s a mon­u­men­tal mis­sion that com­bines science, his­tory and in­tu­ition, and it’s one Brown and her col­leagues have re­cently been com­plet­ing at ramped-up speed, with iden­ti­fi­ca­tions ex­pected to reach 200 an­nu­ally, more than triple the fig­ures from re­cent years.

“There are fam­i­lies still car­ry­ing the torch,” said Brown, a foren­sic an­thro­pol­o­gist with the De­fense POW/MIA Ac­count­ing Agency’s lab near Omaha, Ne­braska. “It’s just as im­por­tant now as it was 77 years ago.”

Of­fi­cials be­lieve re­mains of nearly half of the 83,000 uniden­ti­fied ser­vice mem­bers killed in World War II and more re­cent wars could be iden­ti­fied and re­turned to rel­a­tives. The mod­ern ef­fort to iden­tify re­mains started in 1973 and was pri­mar­ily based in Hawaii un­til a sec­ond lab was opened in 2012 at Of­futt Air Force Base in the Omaha sub­urb of Belle­vue.

With an in­ten­si­fied push, the iden­ti­fi­ca­tions climbed from 59 in 2013 to 183 last year and at least 200 and pos­si­bly a few more this year.

The in­crease has led to a surge of long-de­layed memo­rial ser­vices and buri­als across the coun­try as fam­i­lies and en­tire com­mu­ni­ties turn out to honor those killed.

Joani McGin­nis, of Shenan­doah, Iowa, said her fam­ily is plan­ning a ser­vice Fri­day at the na­tional ceme­tery in Omaha now that they have fi­nally learned what hap­pened to her un­cle, Sgt. Melvin. C. An­der­son.

Piec­ing to­gether bits of his­tory and DNA, the Omaha lab con­firmed that re­mains found in 1946 in Ger­many were An­der­son’s and that he died when his tank was hit in the rugged Hurt­gen For­est dur­ing a bat­tle that lasted for months and left tens of thou­sands of Amer­i­cans killed and wounded.

Be­sides re­turn­ing the re­mains, McGin­nis said the agency gave her a thick file with de­tails about how he died and how re­searchers un­rav­eled the mys­tery.

“I wish my mom and my grandma were here to know all this in­for­ma­tion,” said McGin­nis, who re­called a framed pic­ture of An­der­son that hung in her grand­mother’s home in Omaha. “My grand­mother was very sad about it. She just wanted to know what hap­pened, and she never knew.”

In Ken­tucky, thou­sands of peo­ple lined roads for miles on a steamy Au­gust day to see a hearse car­ry­ing the re­mains of Army Pfc. Joe Stan­ton El­more from the Nashville, Ten­nessee, air­port to the small city of Al­bany.

El­more was re­ported miss­ing in ac­tion in De­cem­ber 1950 af­ter an in­tense bat­tle at the Chosin Reser­voir in Korea and as de­ceased in 1953, but his great-niece April Speck said even decades later, her fam­ily would tell sto­ries of “Joe go­ing off to war and never com­ing home.” Speck said she knew her fam­ily would feel a sense of re­lief that his re­mains were fi­nally re­turned, but she didn’t re­al­ize what it would mean to her com­mu­nity.

“There were peo­ple stand­ing out with their signs and there were re­tired soldiers in their uni­forms salut­ing, and then we get into Al­bany and it like was a sea of peo­ple with all the Amer­i­can flags,” she re­called. “The county did an awe­some job of show­ing re­spect.”

The soar­ing num­ber of iden­ti­fi­ca­tions fol­lowed years of com­plaints about a cum­ber­some process, typ­i­cally re­sult­ing in about 60 com­pleted cases an­nu­ally. Congress re­sponded by set­ting a goal of 200 iden­ti­fi­ca­tions an­nu­ally, and it sup­ported a re­or­ga­ni­za­tion and in­creased fund­ing that saw spend­ing climb from $80.8 mil­lion in the 2010 fis­cal year to $143.9 mil­lion in 2018.

The ef­fort now em­ploys about 600 peo­ple.

Of­fi­cials have stream­lined the work of de­ter­min­ing which re­mains should be dis­in­terred. His­to­ri­ans fo­cus on where clus­ters of ser­vice­men died, and ex­am­ine troop move­ments and con­duct in­ter­views with lo­cal res­i­dents.

“This work is very dif­fer­ent from what most his­to­ri­ans do,” said Ian Spur­geon, an agency his­to­rian

“It’s just as im­por­tant now as it was 77 years ago.”

— Car­rie Brown, a foren­sic an­thro­pol­o­gist with the De­fense POW/ MIA Ac­count­ing Agency’s lab

in Wash­ing­ton. “This is de­tec­tive his­tory.”

Spur­geon’s fo­cus is on bat­tles in Europe and the Mediter­ranean, with a goal of dis­in­ter­ring 50 ser­vice mem­bers an­nu­ally, up from fewer than five.

At Of­futt, in­side a lab built in a for­mer World War II bomber fac­tory, bones are ar­ranged by type on black-topped ta­bles. In an­other room, but­tons, fab­rics, coins and other items found along­side re­mains are stud­ied for hints about a ser­vice mem­ber’s role or home­town.

DNA is key to iden­ti­fi­ca­tions, but it can’t be ex­tracted from all bones, and with­out a match from po­ten­tial rel­a­tives, it has lit­tle value.

In some cases, lab work­ers re­fer to stan­dard chest X-rays of World War II ser­vice­men taken when they en­listed, fo­cus­ing on the traits of the col­lar­bones shown. An al­go­rithm de­vel­oped by the Uni­ver­sity of Ne­braska-Omaha helps work­ers make com­par­isons of re­mains in min­utes.

For Pa­tri­cia Du­ran, the re­sult has been fi­nally learn­ing what hap­pened to her un­cle, Army Air Forces Sgt. Al­fonso O. Du­ran, who died in 1944 when his B24H Lib­er­a­tor bomber was shot down. His re­mains were dis­in­terred from a grave in Slove­nia and iden­ti­fied this spring.

Du­ran had for years sought in­for­ma­tion about her un­cle’s re­mains, and she said she clutched her cousin’s hand while watch­ing him be buried Aug. 22 at Santa Fe Na­tional Ceme­tery, about 50 miles (80 kilo­me­ters) from his child­hood home in the small moun­tain com­mu­nity of El Rito, New Mex­ico.

“We felt such a sense of clo­sure about it be­cause the whole fam­ily heard the sto­ries” about him. “We felt we knew Al­fonso,” she said. “We felt he’d come home.”

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