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Military labs do the detective work to identify soldiers decades after they died in World War II
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Military labs do the detective work to identify soldiers decades after they died in World War II

  • PublishedMay 27, 2024

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. – Generations of American families have grown up not knowing exactly what happened to their loved ones who died while serving their country in World War II and other conflicts.

But a federal lab tucked away above the bowling alley at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha and a sister lab in Hawaii are steadily answering those lingering questions, aiming to offer 200 families per year the chance to honor their relatives with a proper burial.

“They may not even have been alive when that service member was alive, but that story gets carried down through the generations,” said Carrie Brown, a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency lab manager at Offutt. “They may have seen on the mantle a picture of that person when they were little and not really understood or known who they were.”

Memorial Day and the upcoming 80th anniversary of D-Day on June 6 are reminders of the urgency of Brown’s work. The forensic anthropologists, medical examiners and historians who work together to identify lost soldiers are in a race against time as remains buried on battlefields around the globe deteriorate.

But advances in DNA technology, combined with innovative techniques including comparing bones to chest X-rays taken by the military, mean the labs can identify more of the missing soldiers every year. Some 72,000 World War II soldiers remain unaccounted for, along with roughly 10,000 more from all the conflicts since. The experts believe about half of those are recoverable.

The agency identified 59 servicemembers in 2013, when the Offutt lab first opened. That number has steadily risen — 159 service members last year, up from 134 in 2022 — and the labs have a goal of 200 identifications annually.

The labs’ work allowed Donna Kennedy to bury her cousin, Cpl. Charles Ray Patten, with full military honors this month in the same Lawson, Missouri, cemetery where his father and grandfather are buried. Patten died 74 years ago during the Korean War, but spent decades buried as an unknown in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.

“I just I ached. I mean, it hurt. You know, I just felt so bad. Even though I didn’t know him, I loved him,” Kennedy said.

Patten’s funeral was a simple affair with just a few family members. But often when veterans who fought decades earlier are identified, people waving flags and holding signs line the streets of their hometowns to herald the return of their remains.

“This work is important first and foremost because these are individuals that gave their lives to protect our freedom, and they paid the ultimate sacrifice. So we’re here holding that promise that we’ll return them home to their families,” Brown said.

“It’s important for their families to show them that we’ll never stop, no matter what,” she said.

Often there are compelling details, Brown said.

One of her first cases involved the intact remains of a World War I Marine found in a forest in France with his wallet still in his pocket. The wallet, initialed G.H., contained a New York Times article describing plans for the offensive in which he ultimately died. He also had an infantryman badge with his name and the year he received it on the back.

Before leaving France with the remains, the team visited a local cemetery where other soldiers were buried and learned there were only two missing soldiers with the initials G.H.

Brown had a fair idea who that soldier was before his remains even arrived in the lab. That veteran was buried in Arlington National Cemetery and Brown often visits his grave when she is in Washington D.C.

Most cases aren’t that easy.

The experts who work at the lab must piece together identities by looking at historical records about where the remains were found and which soldiers were in the area. They then consult the list of possible names and use the bones, objects found with them, military medical records and DNA to confirm their identities. They focus on battles and plane crashes where they have the greatest chance of success because of available information.

But their work can be complicated if soldiers were buried in a temporary cemetery and moved when a unit was forced to retreat. And unidentified soldiers were often buried together.

When remains are brought to the lab, they sometimes include an extra bone. Experts then spend months or even years matching the bones and waiting for DNA and other test results to confirm their identities.

One test even can identify if the soldier grew up primarily eating rice or a corn-based diet.

The lab also compares specific traits of collar bones to the chest X-rays the military routinely took of soldiers before they were deployed. It helps that the military keeps extensive records of all soldiers.

Those clues help the experts put together the puzzle of someone’s identity.

“It’s not always easy. It’s certainly not instantaneous,” Brown said. “Some of the cases, we really have to fight to get to that spot, because some of them have been gone for 80 years.”

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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