The Accidental Journalist, Part 21 — War Remains, The Long Journey Home

The Story Behind the Story

After I had written three articles on the recovery of war remains from the Korean War I was curious about what happened to those remains once they left Korea and went to Hawaii for identification?

That’s when I came up with the idea for an article about the Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii (CILHI) and how the remains are identified. I was fortunate back in 2001 when I was writing a lot about the Korean War Commemorative Events to get a lot of help from Lee Ferguson who worked for the Eighth Army’s Public Affair’s Office. I owe a lot to her for setting up interviews, attending events, as well as helping me contact outside agencies like CILHI.

Although not one of my better articles, I was really glad that I did write it. Sadly, I should have known my audience. Even though I was writing for one of the three English-language newspapers in Korea, I should thought about a different market. I should have been sending all these articles to magazines and newspapers in the States. However, I just had too much on my plate with teaching as well as writing a couple of articles each week.

This was orginally written in October 2001

War Remains
The Long Journey Home

For U.S. service members listed as missing in action on a battlefield halfway around the world, once their remains have been found, their long journey home starts with a laboratory in Hawaii.

Since 1976, the Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii (CILHI) has been committed to identifying the remains of service members from battlefields around the world—from Europe, Papua New Guinea and China to Vietnam, Laos and North Korea.

More importantly, CILHI brings hope to those families still waiting to bring their loved ones home. Using the latest technology in DNA testing, as well as other methods, CILHI has ensured for the most part, that once remains are found the chances of the identification are high.

“The techniques used for identification of service members since WWII has definitely evolved, incorporating the latest state-of-the-art technology such as computers and analytical software. The most dramatic change has been the introduction of mitochrondrial DNA analysis, which can be used to determine a maternal line,” explained Dr. John Byrd, laboratory manager. “This form of DNA preserves well in the bones. CILHI started using mtDNA sequence data in identifications in 1992. While the technology in its earlier years had a few problems, the technology now is better than ever. We have used mtDNA sequence data to aid in the identification of about 45 percent of our cases during the last five years.”

According to Ms. Ginger Couden, Public Affairs Officer for CILHI, the history of CILHI dates back to the 1840s when the U.S. government made concerted efforts to recover and properly inter its service members killed in war. During World War II, several temporary Army identification laboratories were established using physical anthropologists and anatomists to recover and identify remains of service members.

In 1951 these laboratories were dissolved. With the onset of hostilities on the Korean peninsula, the U.S. re-established a central identification unit in Kokura, Japan to process United Nations Forces war dead. This laboratory was temporary and closed in 1956.

During Vietnam, two U.S. mortuaries operated in South Vietnam identifying remains of service members. After the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Vietnam, the mortuaries closed in 1972 and 1973. This is when the U.S. Army established the Central Identification Laboratory, Thailand. The CIL-THAI’s mission was to continue to search, recover and identify U.S. service members killed in Indochina.

Finally, 25 years ago this past May, the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii was established. With the establishment of CILHI, its mission expanded. The mission of CILHI became to search, recover and identify all unaccounted for U.S. service members from past wars.

In addition, CILHI also performs humanitarian missions identifying remains from recent disasters. In the wake of the tragedies that hit New York and Washington D.C., CILHI is ready to lend assistance if called upon.

“We are ready to deploy if called upon for assistance,” said Couden. “We have not been requested to assist as of now.”

The process for remains identification can begin any number of ways, from efforts of a CILHI search and recovery team or “official unilateral turnover by a foreign government or through turnover by a third party such as a refugee.” Upon delivery to CILHI, they are accessioned and analyzed for identification potential. Next, the forensic anthropologists and odontologists attempt to establish individual identities using standard, recognized forensic techniques and procedures. During this stage of the process, the scientists examine the remains and employ state-of-the-art computers, microscopes, and radiographic equipment to determine and document all dental and anthropological data.

The Laboratory Section staff consists of 29 forensic anthropologists and four forensic odontologists, all with advanced degrees and training, and several are board certified in their respective forensic specialties.

Although mitochrondrial DNA (mtDNA) technology has been proven to be an invaluable tool in the identification process of remains, dental X-ray analysis continues to be the mainstay of the identification process. Dental remains are examined by one of the forensic odontologists who X-rays the remains and then carefully documents restorations or unusual characteristics.

Next, using the Computer Assisted Post-Mortem Identification (CAPMI) System—a database program that contains the dental records of many U.S. service members whose remains have not been recovered, these findings are entered for possible matches. The CAPMI search engine compares the general characteristics of the recovered teeth against the database and generates a list of most-likely candidates for a match. If any matches are found, the odontologist then requests the original dental records from the Casualty Data Section for the comparison.

In addition to DNA testing and dental analysis, forensic anthropologists also examine the skeletal remains. “Working ‘blind,’ (i.e., with no prior knowledge of the physical characteristics or even the number of individuals believed to be involved in the case/incident) the anthropologist derives a biological profile for the remains.” During this physical analysis of the remains, such factors like age, race, sex, muscularity, stature, indication of antemortem and perimortem injuries and any characteristic abnormalities are noted. Once this profile is completed, the anthropologist compares these characteristics with the known, recorded features of the missing individual supplied by the CILHI Casualty Data Section.

Throughout the identification process, the staff can consult or request assistance from several agencies, including the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, and the Smithsonian Institution.

When the analysis is completed, the anthropologists discuss their findings to the Scientific Director, a board-certified forensic anthropologist. The Scientific Director then combines these findings with the background research supplied by Casualty Data analysts and the result of other investigations, such as wreckage and/or life-support equipment analysis. Viewed within this total framework of data, the Scientific Director finally decides whether or not the evidence will support identification for review.

“Once the remains have been identified by our laboratory and signed off by the Laboratory Scientific Director, a report is delivered to the Service Casualty Office. After review, a casualty officer contacts the family member listed as next of kin,” explained Couden. “The family member is then fully briefed on the identification process, how we came to the results, the search and recovery efforts involved in recovering the remains and any other information available.”

Despite many breakthroughs in DNA testing, there are still some remains that cannot be identified. Nonetheless, as Couden pointed out the policy at CILHI is to retain these unidentified cases pending either the advent of new techniques and methods or the receipt of additional information that would lead to identification.

“There are remains that we have not been able to identify given existing technology,” explained Couden. “For example, many Vietnam-era cases received in the laboratory in the 1980s were not identifiable given the technology available at that time. Since then, however, DNA technology (first used by the CILHI in 1992) has allowed for many of those cases to be successfully resolved. To this end, the CILHI is actively engaged in research on a variety of topics that it is hoped will lead to future identifications.”

The search for the remains of service members can begin a number of ways. The search begins with an analysis where CILHI develops and reviews existing leads. Then there is the investigation. The laboratory has a Casualty Data section, which produces detailed maps, name associations and records research for unaccounted service members. The section maintains personnel, medical and dental files for unaccounted for service members.

“The Casualty Data analysts research their records and historical documents to compile names and background data, necessary for us to determine specific loss areas. The analysts plot on a map service members last know locations. We use this information to aid in compiling mission lists,” said Couden. “We conduct full-scale investigations to include interviews with locals and witnesses to determine if a site with remains exists. We also look at whether remains would still be at a site or if scavengers have recovered the remains. We analyze how long it would take to recover remains from a specific area and the impact of weather and terrain in that area.”

Additionally they also look at the political climate of the country and whether there is cooperation from the government. All these factors are taken into consideration when they decide on locations for recovery missions.

According to Couden, some of the World War II recovery sites have included Papua New Guinea, Germany, France, Turkey, China, Irian Jaya, the Makin Islands, Vanuatu, Palau and Russia. There are approximately 78,000 service members from World War II that are unaccounted for. Last year CILHI identified 39 individuals lost during World War II.

“We do rely on first-hand accounts of sites where remains may exist. We interview witnesses, locals that may live near a possible site and those who have seen the site for themselves,” said Couden. “All these interviews are part of the investigation and aid in determining if we should conduct an excavation in a specific area.”

This past May, the search for the remains of a UNC service member was made possible by the eyewitness account of a service member. During last year’s 50th Commemoration of the start of the Korean War, he provided information that led to the discovery of two sets of remains. They were transported to CILHI in May.

And sometimes the discovery of remains is by chance.

This past July, after heavy rains pounded the peninsula one weekend, a local farmer walking along a beach down near Osan discovered what appeared to be part of a boot sticking out of the sand. Later, it was determined that what the farmer had stumbled across were the remains of a United Nations Command (UNC) service member. Although the service member’s dog tags and other documents were found at the site, including a map, his name was not released until positive identification could be done at the laboratory in Hawaii.

“Evidence recovered in the field, such as identification tags and aircraft data plates, can give strong clues as to whom the remains belong to, but can rarely constitute the basis of an identification,” said Couden. “For example, we have on occasion recovered ID tags that did not belong to the individual whose remains we recovered. For this reason, each case must undergo a thorough analytical process before identification can be made.”

Since 1996, teams have been able to go into North Korea to search for the remains of service members killed during the fall of 1950. That first year one team was allowed to go into North Korea and the remains of one individual was recovered. The following year, three teams went to North Korea and the remains of six service members were recovered. This year, three teams have been able to recover the remains of 20 service members.

According to Couden, there are two more Joint Recovery Operations planned into North Korea this year. The most recent agreement was in December of 2000. That agreement set the schedule for 2001.

“It was agreed there would be 5 joint recovery missions in 2001. Of those, three of the operations were in Unsan, Kaechon and Kujang, where battles involving the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry, 2nd Infantry and 25th Infantry Division fought in November 1950,” explained Couden. “These last two operations of the year will be on the east and west sides of the Chosin Reservoir in the northeast portion of North Korea. Korean War analysts believe that as many as 750 U.S. soldiers and Marines may have been lost during battles in November and December near Chosin.

“The North Koreans have been cooperative in allowing us to conduct recovery operations. Because of the agreements, we have been able to bring home 127 remains. Of those remains, we have identified and returned 11 service members to their families.”

There are still more than 8,100 U.S. service members still unaccounted for from the Korean War.

The people who work at the laboratory are deeply committed to bringing these men home and to give those thousands of families who have lost loved ones a sense of closure. For some, like Byrd the personal satisfaction they get out of their work when they’ve been able to make a positive identification cannot be measured.

“We identify more than 100 remains every year. We work so hard on so many cases that you don’t always feel the impact until you actually encounter a family member who is affected. When we meet family members of those we have identified we are able to appreciate the actual affect our work has made on those families,” said Byrd. “It gives me an intense feeling of great job satisfaction. However, the flip side is when we haven’t located a service member or are unable to identify an individual, it sometimes gives a feeling of failure.”

The recovery and identification process may take years, but despite the obstacles, the United States Government and the CILHI remain committed to the fullest possible accounting of all of the service members killed in defense of their country.

For the thousands of service members still missing from World War II, Korea and Vietnam the ongoing remains recovery and identification at CILHI promises hope for their families still waiting for their loved ones to come home and to finally give these families some sense of closure.

“Every family that we are able to provide some closure for is always considered a success,” said Couden.

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