The mil­i­tary re­cov­ers its dead

Some 83,000 mem­bers of the U.S. mil­i­tary are miss­ing. This group tries to bring them home.

Popular Science - - CONTENTS - BY VINCE BEISER


EARLY ON THE MORN­ING OF JAN­UARY 25, 1944, eight young Amer­i­can air­men strode across the gravel of an air­field in Kun­ming, China, to­ward a B-24J bomber. Their mis­sion was to fly the 67-foot-long air­craft, its nose be­decked with a pic­ture of a pinup girl and the slo­gan “Hot as Hell,” over the Himalayas to pick up sup­plies from Bri­tish-held In­dia. It was a rou­tine run but still plenty dan­ger­ous. The weather over the moun­tain route, known as the Hump, was fear­somely un­pre­dictable and se­vere. Some 600 Amer­i­can planes would crash in the area by the war’s end.

The men set­tled into their po­si­tions: two pi­lots, a nav­i­ga­tor, a bom­bardier, a ra­dio op­er­a­tor, a flight en­gi­neer, and two gun­ners. At 7:40 a.m., the plane roared up into the sky. Smooth sail­ing as they climbed to 15,000 feet. But three hours into the trip, thick clouds rolled in. The pi­lots could barely see a mile in front of them. Some­where in that vast moun­tain range, out of sight and out of touch with their base, the Hot as Hell went down.

In 1947, with the fight­ing over, the United States mounted a cam­paign to find the bod­ies of the more than 300 Amer­i­cans who had gone miss­ing in plane crashes on the Hump. The searchers trav­eled by truck, mule, and foot, ford­ing rain-swollen rivers and fend­ing off malar­ial mos­qui­toes, but never found the spot where the Hot as Hell fell to Earth. The area in which it pre­sum­ably lay, the search party’s of­fi­cial re­port de­clared, “en­com­passes many thou­sands of square miles of moun­tain­ous jun­gle ter­rain, some of it in­ac­ces­si­ble, un­ex­plored, and un­in­hab­ited.” Their con­clu­sion: “Any fur­ther at­tempt for the re­cov­ery of their re­mains would prove un­suc­cess­ful.”

Sixty-eight years later, on a sunny Oc­to­ber morn­ing, Meghan-Tó­m­a­sita Cos­grif­fHernán­dez came clam­ber­ing along a rocky trail 9,400 feet up in the In­dian Himalayas. The an­thro­pol­o­gist and her 12 team­mates had hiked up­hill un­der a glar­ing sun for more than two days to reach the spot where they now stood. Be­fore them was a steep gully, thick with trees, brush, and boul­ders—and lit­tered with a weather-beaten pro­pel­ler, wing, en­gine, and the other ragged pieces of what had been the Hot as Hell. The group’s mis­sion was as straight­for­ward as it was daunt­ing: search through acres of that jungly growth and un­sta­ble scree for the re­mains of the air­plane’s crew.

Well, thought Cos­griff-Hernán­dez, look­ing over the ex­panse, let’s get to it. os­griff-Hernán­dez’s team was one of many the United States mil­i­tary reg­u­larly dis­patches all over the world—but these are squads of sci­en­tists as well as sol­diers. Their task is not killing en­e­mies but rather find­ing dead Amer­i­cans. Some 83,000 Amer­i­can mil­i­tary per­son­nel have gone miss­ing in con­flicts since World War II—pre­sumed to have died in plane crashes, ship sink­ings, and chaotic bat­tles. Dozens of times a year, the De­fense POW/MIA Ac­count­ing Agency (which goes by the ini­tial­ism DPAA) sends teams of foren­sic ar­chae­ol­o­gists, an­thro­pol­o­gists, air­craft ex­perts, and oth­ers to scour Viet­namese jun­gles, Euro­pean forests, Pa­cific is­lands, and other for­mer bat­tle zones for those ser­vice mem­bers’ re­mains. Find­ing the bod­ies is just the first hur­dle; next comes the chal­lenge of us­ing foren­sic den­tistry, DNA anal­y­sis, and other tech­niques to iden­tify to whom those bone frag­ments and bro­ken teeth be­longed. The agency boasts a $112 mil­lion an­nual bud­get and a staff of about 700, work­ing out of a cen­ter in Hawaii and a net­work of far-flung labs and field bases. At any given time, in­ves­ti­ga­tors are work­ing on about 1,200 cases.

The project be­gan after the Viet­nam War, when fam­i­lies of miss­ing sol­diers pres­sured the govern­ment to fig­ure out what had be­come of their loved ones. Hun­dreds of re­mains from that con­flict have since been found and re­turned to rel­a­tives. “Be­cause of that suc­cess, later on Congress added the Korean War,” says Kelly McKeague, a for­mer Air Force ma­jor gen­eral who is di­rec­tor of the DPAA. “Then other fam­i­lies started ask­ing, ‘What about us?’”

The agency is now of­fi­cially tasked with pro­vid­ing “the fullest pos­si­ble ac­count­ing” of the fates of miss­ing per­son­nel from the Sec­ond World War through today’s con­flicts. As many as 39,000 of the to­tal were lost at sea, and the agency does not ex­pect to ever re­cover their re­mains. But that still leaves a stag­ger­ing caseload.

Many searches be­gin in musty ar­chives and dig­i­tal data­bases. DPAA his­to­ri­ans and ar­chiv­ists pore over bat­tle re­ports, flight and ship logs, and other doc­u­ments to fig­ure out where those sol­diers, sailors, marines, and air­men are likely to have ac­tu­ally died. The Hot as Hell crash site, though, was handed to the agency: Clay­ton Kuh­les, an Ari­zona moun­taineer and self-ap­pointed MIA hunter, found some of the plane’s wreck­age with the help of a lo­cal guide in 2006.

Kuh­les re­ported his dis­cov­ery to the Depart­ment of De­fense, but the site lies in Arunachal Pradesh, a po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive state in north­east­ern In­dia; China claims part of the re­gion, which bor­ders Ti­bet. Get­ting per­mis­sion for a gag­gle of U.S. mil­i­tary per­son­nel to poke around up there proved tricky. In­dian au­thor­i­ties fi­nally al­lowed a re­cov­ery crew ac­cess early in 2009, but a snowstorm forced them to quit after only a few days. A sec­ond try later that year found no hu­man re­mains. They weren’t al­lowed an­other shot un­til 2015.

Cos­griff-Hernán­dez was the sci­en­tific lead on the 2015 mis­sion, and one of just two women. (In other searches, she is of­ten the only one.) Fast talk­ing and ath­letic, she’s al­ways thrived on phys­i­cal chal­lenges. In col­lege, she com­peted at track and field. Grow­ing up in San Diego, she was also in­trigued by the dead sea crea­tures she’d run across on the beach— all those strangely shaped skulls and teeth. “It sounds mor­bid,” she says, “but I’ve al­ways been fas­ci­nated by death.” She wound up get­ting a doc­tor­ate in bi­o­log­i­cal an­thro­pol­ogy, and was hired by the DPAA’s pre­de­ces­sor agency in 2012. She quickly de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for

vol­un­teer­ing for the hairi­est mis­sions. Be­sides the Himalayas, she has spent months in the jun­gles and moun­tains of Viet­nam, Laos, Pa­pua New Guinea, and many other places. “I’m try­ing to get in all the crazy, in­tense mis­sions while my body is still up for it,” she says with a half-smirk.

When the re­quest went out in mid-2015 seek­ing vol­un­teers for the Hot as Hell mis­sion, her hand shot up. It would be tough by any­one’s stan­dards—more than a month spent high up a steep moun­tain, far from any hu­man habi­ta­tion. Cos­griff-Hernán­dez—who of­ten goes by Mitch, an ab­bre­vi­a­tion of her un­wieldy mul­ti­hy­phen­ated name—trained for three months, haul­ing heavy packs on 10-mile “ruck marches.”

One of the sol­diers looked up from his screen hey mitch, found some­thing

In late Septem­ber, the group flew to north­east­ern In­dia and drove SUVs to the re­mote town of Dam­roh. Then they con­tin­ued on foot. They hiked about nine hours the first day, and more than six the next. The views were un­ut­ter­ably beau­ti­ful, but the high-alti­tude trek was of­ten tor­tu­ous. Even team medic Sgt. 1st Class Saule Plott, a U.S. Spe­cial Forces vet­eran of three Iraq tours, found it tough. “It was very, very steep, and ex­tremely hot,” he says. “I would say the ma­jor­ity of us were not ready for it.” he searchers set up a base camp about an hour’s hike from the wreck­age; that was the clos­est spot with enough flat ground. Cos­griff-Hernán­dez, Plott, and a few oth­ers made the first foray to the site the next day. Plott was as­ton­ished. “It’s a sight to see, es­pe­cially in the mid­dle of nowhere,” he says. “An en­tire plane, busted into parts. Fuse­lage, en­gines here, tires there.” All scat­tered over a square mile and a half. He knew there wouldn’t be any­thing as ob­vi­ous as a skeleton in a flight suit in there; after more than 70 years of ex­po­sure to the el­e­ments, all that was likely to re­main of the crewmem­bers were frag­ments of “os­seous ma­te­rial”—bones or teeth. How, Plott won­dered, were they sup­posed to find some­thing as small as a sin­gle tooth in all that de­bris-strewn wilder­ness?

Be­fore the search be­gan, an ex­plo­sive-ord­nance tech­ni­cian swept the area with a me­tal de­tec­tor for un­ex­ploded shells. The slope was so steep that team mem­bers would have to do their dig­ging while tied to lines an­chored around trees. There wasn’t even enough level ground on which to set their sift­ing screens, forc­ing them to build an im­pro­vised ledge out of branches and rope.

Cos­griff-Hernán­dez set a fixed start­ing point and laid out a grid of 4-square-me­ter dig­ging ar­eas. Us­ing hand rakes and trow­els, a ro­tat­ing group dug through a car­pet of moss and roots, and man­han­dled the ex­posed dirt and loose stones into buck­ets. Those were passed along to an­other group at the sort­ing screens. They sifted ev­ery­thing through quar­ter-inch wire mesh, fil­ter­ing out the dirt and ex­am­in­ing what­ever was left, pick­ing through the rocks, sticks, and leaves for any­thing that might have once be­longed to one of the miss­ing air crew.

Cos­griff-Hernán­dez took turns on the trow­els and screens, swap­ping jabs and jokes with the crew. In the evenings they’d play gin rummy or watch movies on some­one’s so­lar-bat­tery-charged lap­top. One night Cos­griff-Hernán­dez made s’mores, and on Hal­loween she doled out king-size candy bars. “In­stead of be­ing like, ‘Oh, thank you,’ they were like, ‘You’ve had this in your tent the whole time?!’” she says, laugh­ing.

On the eleventh day, one of the sol­diers looked up from his screen. “Hey, Mitch, I found some­thing,” he called. He handed Cos­griff-Hernán­dez a small, curved dark shard. She knew im­me­di­ately what it was. “We found

cra­nium!” she called out. A mighty whoop­ing and cheer­ing rose up. “I’m sure the vil­lage down be­low heard us cel­e­brat­ing,” she says.

No more re­mains turned up that day. Nor the one after that, nor the one after that. It started rain­ing. The tem­per­a­ture dropped. Plott found him­self mis­er­ably sift­ing through a bucket of mud one day, think­ing: This is a lost cause. This is ab­so­lutely point­less. Then he spot­ted some­thing on his screen: two dis­col­ored teeth, cling­ing to a shard of jaw­bone. The sight hit him harder than he’d ex­pected. “I had to fight back tears,” he says. “I sud­denly thought I had made the right de­ci­sion in vol­un­teer­ing to come.”

But soon the weather wors­ened into hail and snow, and the close calls were pil­ing up. One searcher was briefly trapped un­der a run­away boul­der, and an­other hurt her knee. Cos­griff-Hernán­dez had to dive out of the way of a land­slide at one point. The team de­cided it was too dan­ger­ous to con­tinue. After 35 days in the Himalayas, they packed up their pre­cious finds and headed back to Hawaii. The DPAA op­er­ates out of an im­pos­ing three-story build­ing on a joint U.S. Air Force and Navy base on the out­skirts of Honolulu. The fed­eral govern­ment built the fa­cil­ity as the agency emerged out of a ma­jor re­struc­tur­ing of the MIA re­cov­ery ef­fort in 2015. For years, sev­eral dif­fer­ent Pen­tagon of­fices had been in­volved in hunt­ing for miss­ing mil­i­tary per­son­nel. Their col­lec­tive pace was leisurely: Be­tween 2002 and 2012, they ac­counted for an aver­age of just 72 ser­vice mem­bers each year. The pro­gram was ham­mered by the press, vet­er­ans’ fam­i­lies, and politi­cians for be­ing waste­ful, in­ef­fi­cient, and lag­ging be­hind the sci­en­tific curve.

As a re­sult, in 2015 most of the mis­sion was con­sol­i­dated un­der the rubric of the DPAA. The tempo has quick­ened sub­stan­tially since then. Last year, the agency iden­ti­fied 201 miss­ing ser­vice mem­bers, the most in its his­tory. (Still, at that rate, it will take over a cen­tury to clear the list.) Di­rec­tor McKeague cred­its the higher num­ber to bet­ter or­ga­ni­za­tion and tech­nol­ogy—in­clud­ing one of the world’s largest foren­sic an­thro­pol­ogy labs.

Dozens of sets of hu­man bones lie neatly ar­rayed on me­tal ta­bles in an ex­pan­sive ex­am­in­ing room on the DPAA build­ing’s sec­ond floor. Some con­sist of just a few ver­te­brae and a tibia or two, some nearly com­plete skele­tons. The pieces are of­ten cracked or bro­ken, and dis­col­ored by fire, chem­i­cals, or years in the ground. The grisly scene is sur­re­ally coun­ter­pointed by floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows look­ing out on the is­land of Oahu’s lushly forested moun­tains.

Many of the re­mains come from sites such as the Na­tional Me­mo­rial Ceme­tery of the Pa­cific, aka the Punch­bowl, in the hills above Honolulu. It is the rest­ing place for more than 33,000 ser­vice mem­bers, more than 2,000 of whom are still uniden­ti­fied. Dis­in­ter­ring and iden­ti­fy­ing those re­mains is part of the DPAA’s mis­sion.

While find­ing those bones is easy, iden­ti­fy­ing who they be­long to is not. Many cas­kets turn out to hold the parts of more than one per­son, all jum­bled to­gether. The agency’s an­thro­pol­o­gists spend painstak­ing hours sort­ing out which go with which, piec­ing them to­gether one by one. Bones them­selves can of­fer im­por­tant clues about who they came from. The de­gree to which car­ti­lage has os­si­fied is an in­di­ca­tor of age. The shapes of chins, eye­brow ridges, and pelvic gir­dles tend to dif­fer be­tween men and women. Fea­tures of skulls can point to­ward ances­try: Asians, Africans, and Euro­peans tend to have char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally shaped eye sock­ets, cheek­bones, and nasal aper­tures. Sev­eral years ago, John Byrd, the DPAA’s lab di­rec­tor, stum­bled across a for­got­ten trove of chest X-rays the Armed Forces had taken of in­ductees to screen for tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. By com­par­ing the shapes of uniden­ti­fied bones to those in the X-rays, DPAA an­a­lysts have helped iden­tify well over 100 ser­vice mem­bers.

Cos­griff-Hernán­dez’s in­volve­ment with the re­mains from the Hot as Hell site ended with their ar­rival at the lab. She handed them off to an­other an­thro­pol­o­gist, who worked “in the blind,” know­ing noth­ing about who the frag­ments might have come from, a stan­dard pre­cau­tion to pre­vent her

bi­ases or ex­pec­ta­tions from in­flu­enc­ing her anal­y­sis.

She couldn’t tell much, though, from the lit­tle pieces of skull and jaw. So she sent them to one of the DPAA’s part­ner agen­cies, the Armed Forces Med­i­cal Ex­am­iner Sys­tem’s DNA lab, which spe­cial­izes in glean­ing in­for­ma­tion from the tini­est of bi­o­log­i­cal sam­ples.

Kim­berly Root, an an­a­lyst at the AFMES fa­cil­ity in Dover, Delaware, got the case. The lab has de­vel­oped sev­eral tech­niques to deal with of­ten badly de­com­posed re­mains, in­clud­ing pro­ce­dures that have en­abled its staff to ex­tract ge­netic ma­te­rial from a mere 0.2 grams of bone ma­te­rial, and from re­mains treated with DNA-dam­ag­ing formalde­hyde.

Root broke off a frag­ment of the cra­nium piece, and ex­tracted a sam­ple of dentin—the dense tis­sue be­neath the sur­face enamel— from one of the teeth. Both pro­ce­dures are tai­lored to do as lit­tle dam­age as pos­si­ble to the re­mains, since they will ul­ti­mately be re­turned to fam­ily mem­bers. From those sam­ples, Root and her fel­low an­a­lysts ex­tracted pro­files of both mi­to­chon­drial DNA, which is passed from moth­ers to their chil­dren, and Y-chro­mo­some DNA, which is passed only from fa­thers to sons. They first de­ter­mined that the skull and tooth were from the same per­son. Com­par­ing those pro­files to DNA sam­ples given by sur­viv­ing fam­ily mem­bers, Root found that the mtDNA matched up with one par­tic­u­lar crewmem­ber’s ma­ter­nal niece and nephew, and the Y-chro­mo­some DNA matched the same crewmem­ber’s pa­ter­nal nephew.

That’s not quite proof pos­i­tive, but as Root wrote in her re­port, that com­bi­na­tion in­di­cated it was 623,000 times more likely that the skull sam­ple came from that miss­ing flyer than “from an un­re­lated in­di­vid­ual in the gen­eral Cau­casian pop­u­la­tion.”

With the air­man’s iden­tity all but con­firmed, the case went back to Honolulu and foren­sic odon­tol­o­gist Calvin Shi­roma. There were no X-rays of the Hot as Hell crew’s teeth, which would have en­abled Shi­roma to com­pare the shapes of crowns and roots; all he had were pa­per den­tal records. The mo­lars Plott found in the Himalayas had fill­ings; the records showed that the air­man the DNA lab had iden­ti­fied had fill­ings in the same teeth. Taken to­gether, the DNA, odon­tol­ogy, and other ev­i­dence pointed con­clu­sively to one per­son. His name was Robert Eu­gene Ox­ford, of Con­cord, Ge­or­gia. The youngest of six chil­dren, he was a slim, dark-haired young man who played gospel and hill­billy gui­tar, worked on his fam­ily’s farm and at the lo­cal post of­fice, and planned on mar­ry­ing his sweet­heart. One month after the Ja­panese at­tack on Pearl Harbor, in Jan­uary 1942, Ox­ford vol­un­teered for the Army Air Corps. By the end of that year, he was sent over­seas as a sec­ond lieu­tenant. He was 24 when he died in the Hot as Hell crash.

Mer­rill Roan was on her way to lunch with her hus­band in Thomas­ton, Ge­or­gia, in spring 2017 when she got the call that Ox­ford’s re­mains had been found. He was her hus­band’s un­cle, and some­thing of a fam­ily leg­end. “It was un­be­liev­able,” she says. “We were ec­static. We started call­ing all the kids and grand­kids.”

Roan had been in­volved for years in a cam­paign to pres­sure the DPAA to find the Hot as Hell crew’s re­mains. She still re­sents what she sees as the agency’s foot-drag­ging: “Some of his loved ones who knew him could have been here” for his funeral if he’d been found sooner.

Many rel­a­tives of miss­ing Amer­i­cans com­plain about the DPAA’s bu­reau­cracy, and some charge that it priv­i­leges Viet­nam op­er­a­tions at the ex­pense of World War II cases. But per­haps the most ob­vi­ous ques­tion about the agency’s work is sim­ply: Is it worth it? Does it re­ally make sense to spend mil­lions of tax­payer dol­lars to re­cover a few shards of bone?

“Ob­jec­tively, it makes no sense,” ac­knowl­edges McKeague. That said, “it’s worth it from the stand­point that these in­di­vid­u­als made the ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice in de­fense of this na­tion,” he says. “It’s an obli­ga­tion, a sa­cred one, that we’ve com­mit­ted to. It also sends a strong sig­nal to those cur­rently in uni­form that this coun­try will do ev­ery­thing hu­manly pos­si­ble to en­sure that they’re brought home. That they will not be for­got­ten and that their sac­ri­fice will not be in vain.”

Cos­griff-Hernán­dez was de­lighted when she heard the news about the Ox­ford iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. She has been in touch with a few of the fam­i­lies whose loved ones she’s lo­cated, but those are the ex­cep­tions; usu­ally, as in this case, she just moves on to the next job. When we last spoke, she was gear­ing up for her next mis­sion, in the moun­tains of the Philip­pines.

All of Ox­ford’s sib­lings, friends, and his fi­ancée were dead by the time his fam­ily held a ser­vice for him in a high school au­di­to­rium near Con­cord. None­the­less, hun­dreds of peo­ple turned out—dozens of rel­a­tives, as well as scores of neigh­bors, vet­er­ans, lo­cal politi­cians, and other well-wish­ers. At a cer­e­mony be­fore the burial, a framed photo of the air­man stood next to his cas­ket. Be­side it, his fam­ily placed pic­tures of the other seven Hot as Hell crewmem­bers. Vince Beiser is the author of the forth­com­ing book The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Trans­formed Civ­i­liza­tion.

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