How the Defense Department Identifies the Remains of Our War Dead
On Wednesday, two military cargo planes carrying 55 aluminum coffin-shaped cases landed at Hickam Air Force Base in Oahu, Hawaii. Inside are presumed to be the remains of American service members who died in North Korea between 1950 and 1953 during the Korean War. The remains were turned over to United States officials Friday by the North Korean government — the first such handover since joint recovery efforts between the two countries came to a halt in 2005.
[The 55 cases delivered on Wednesday are likely to contain a jumble of bones and few reliable clues to their identity.]
With the boxes now on American soil, it falls on the Defense Department to begin the difficult task of putting names to those skeletal remains, which could take months, if not years. Leading this effort is a specialized unit out of Hawaii called the Defense P.O.W./M.I.A. Accounting Agency, or D.P.A.A., which was established in 2015 after the Joint P.O.W./M.I.A. Accounting Command and the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office were merged. D.P.A.A. is responsible for locating and identifying the bodies of the tens of thousands of American military personnel who died as prisoners of war or who were considered “missing in action” from World War II to the present.
The Times Magazine spoke with Dr. Paul Emanovsky, a forensic anthropologist for D.P.A.A. who has been identifying missing American military personnel since 2002, to understand what the agency’s work encompasses and what steps it takes to make an identification.
What are some of the excavation projects D.P.A.A. is working on?
At the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, nicknamed the Punchbowl, we exhumed about 400 individuals killed aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma, which was a battleship sunk in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. At the same cemetery we also exhumed 94 caskets of Marines who died in the 1943 battle of Tarawa, and we’re currently identifying them. We’re also working on remains from the Solomon Islands, the U.S.S. California and U.S.S. West Virginia.
How many American military personnel are still considered “missing in action”?
From the Korean War, there are more than 7,600 still missing. From World War II, there’s close to 73,000 missing. And from Vietnam, there’s 1,597 missing. We usually say about 30,000 are deemed “recoverable,” and that excludes the deep-water losses like ships and submarines as well as aircraft that crashed at sea.
How do you decide where to investigate?
We have teams of researchers and investigators that go out and canvass areas. Once we have enough information on the likely location of a missing American, we add it to a master excavation list. Based on logistics, timing and resources, different factors go into when we are going to go out and do that excavation. We do a lot of missions in Southeast Asia still, so the bulk of our fieldwork is there. The soil there is quite acidic, so generally we’re dealing with small fragments of bone. Sites that are in danger preservation-wise might get a higher priority.
How many identifications are you able to make?
When I started, we were averaging two identifications a week, and a lot of those were from Vietnam. We were doing nearly 100 a year. But then Congress mandated that we double that output. We did 201 last year.
In the case of the U.S.S. Oklahoma, there were 46 graves at the Punchbowl, with 62 caskets. Of the 429 Americans who died on board, 388 were unaccounted for at the time. As of a couple weeks ago, we’ve identified 149 of them. The Oklahoma project was massively commingled, so that’s where all of the remains from individuals were mixed together. We’re sorting that out using different techniques, such as anthropological data, measurements and then pair-matching. That could mean pairing a left humerus with a right humerus. And then also DNA has been a huge part of it.
When remains are identified and turned over to surviving family members, are all of the skeletal remains for that person included in the transfer?
When we make an identification, we tell the families that it’s more likely that additional portions of their loved one will be found. They decide whether they want to wait for the additional portions before they take the remains for their final disposition. They can say, “We don’t want to know anything more about that” and ask that we give them what we can already identify now for burial.
That’s the same with the Korean War projects that we have. Back in the 1990s, we received 208 boxes of remains from the North Koreans, which had over 400 DNA sequences in them. When we combined those remains with the fieldwork we were doing in North Korea at the time, there were about 600 separate sequences. We’ve identified a great deal of Americans out of that. We have about 80 Americans we’re still trying to identify out of that assemblage. The remainder are likely Korean, Chinese or even Allied forces.
Similarly, in the 55 boxes arriving from North Korea, it’s possible we may identify more than 55 Americans among the remains.
What kinds of breakthroughs have helped you identify Korean War M.I.A.s so far?
In the Punchbowl, there were about 800 individuals buried as “unknowns” from the Korean War who were returned to the United States in the 1950s. When we started exhuming them in 2001, we found we couldn’t extract DNA from the bones. We later discovered that all of the people from the Korean War had gotten chest radiographs to check for tuberculosis when they were being inducted into the military, and we found those X-rays at the National Archives. So for the 7,600 who remain missing, we have the radiographs for about 72 percent of them. That allowed us to make a lot of identifications quickly by looking at the clavicles and the upper thoracic vertebrae as well as the lower cervical vertebrae in the images and compare them to the actual skeletal remains we exhumed.
DNA helps too. We’ve collected DNA from 92 percent of surviving family members for Korean War MIAs that can be used to make an identification.
What’s different about doing excavations in North Korea as compared with a country like Vietnam?
I was on one mission to North Korea in 2002, up at the Chosin Reservoir, and what we typically found were battlefield burials: small mass graves, foxhole burials. Maybe five bodies buried together. In Southeast Asia, we are mainly looking at aircraft crashes, and we have to search much wider areas for remains. They typically yield much smaller fragmentary pieces of bone and teeth.
What do you anticipate finding with these new remains coming home from North Korea?
It’s going to most likely be very similar to the 208 boxes we received in the 1990s. The process will be the same. Back in the ’90s, though, DNA was just beginning to be used for this kind of work, and getting results back was a lot slower. I don’t expect to have any trouble getting DNA from these remains so we expect success rates to be very high, I think near 90 percent.