JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii, June 1, 2015 —
An American pilot begins a mission in Italy on Christmas Eve during World War II and never returns.
A U.S. Marine goes missing during the Korean War, and more than half a century later, the daughter he last saw when she was 18 months old still longs to have known him.
In a yellowing letter, a World War II widow who never remarried pleads for answers about her husband of less than a year who went to war and faded without a trace.
No matter how minute the link or trace, no matter how much time has passed, the team at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency here ceaselessly works to find the remains of American prisoners of war and personnel still missing in action to bring answers to family and friends of their loved ones.
“Every identification tells a story,” said Gary Shaw, regional coordination branch chief at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
And more often than not, those stories have taken place where the agency’s painstaking quest to solve a mystery has diplomatic implications.
“By the nature of our business, almost all of the casualties, except for a very few training casualties in the United States, are in foreign countries around the world,” Shaw said. “So those countries, in effect, are hosting us.”
Shaw said the countries run the gamut from allies to friends, partners, and even some countries with which the United States has had strained or inconsistent relations. But the humanitarian aspect of the mission, he added, enables the search teams to gain access to countries where a different military mission might not be welcome.
“Because it’s not a traditional [military-to-military relationship], it’s not held hostage to some of the political constraints and considerations like other mil-to-mil operations,” Shaw said. “Everyone can agree that this is a good thing to do. It’s a good-news story, and it allows us access to places where we otherwise might not be able to go.”
Building Relationships with a Former Enemy
Of note, Shaw said, is the evolution of the U.S. mission in Vietnam, where, following the war, the United States worked with Vietnamese officials to identify locations of U.S. casualties and bring them home.
Shortly after the fall of Saigon in 1975, DoD established a Hanoi-based POW/MIA office that Shaw described as a forerunner of the current organization.
“That office in Hanoi predated the presence of the U.S. Embassy, which didn’t happen until later in the [President Bill] Clinton administration,” Shaw noted. “By getting that footprint, we were able to establish a relationship with the various host nations and have some confidence-building measures where … we could learn a little bit more about them and they could learn a little bit more about us.”
Shaw also praised as a recent success the current U.S. relationship with Burma, a relationship he said is building “step by step.”
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has been in Burma for the last three fiscal years to conduct investigations on additional U.S. POW/MIA service members, Shaw explained. “When we resumed diplomatic relations with Burma, our mission is one of the first we could do,” he said.
Until about 10 years ago, recovery missions were one of the few actions the United States conducted with North Korea, Shaw said. Forensic and excavation teams estimate that about 5,500 Americans’ remains have yet to be recovered in an area about 60 miles north of Pyongyang near the Chosin-Jangjin reservoir.
Studies indicate that about 8,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines went missing during the Korean War from 1950-1953.
“There’s a good example of a place where we don’t have very good relations at all, but what little we can do will go back to this mission,” Shaw said. “When we resume any kind of relations with North Korea, I’m confident that our mission will be the one that gets our foot in the door.”
Similarly, Shaw said the agency’s mission continues unimpeded in China, even if the relationship gets somewhat tense on occasion.
Early Recovery Efforts
During World War II and the Korean War, the U.S. Army Graves Registration Service, as the executive agent for mortuary affairs, made frequent stops at makeshift battlefield cemeteries.
“In the olden days, they didn’t have the refrigeration [or] logistical capability we have now, so people were pretty much buried where they fell,” Shaw explained. “[The Army] would go back after the war and go to temporary battlefield cemeteries to bring the remains home, leave them in place or consolidate them.”
Meanwhile, the lack of access to the ground in Vietnam presented still more challenges, Shaw recounted. “After the Vietnam War, there were a lot of political undercurrents and context associated with that war, and the American public demanded accountability for our POWs and MIAs.”
The Army Graves Registration Service morphed into two elements: the Joint Casualty Resolution Center and the Central Identification Laboratory, both in Thailand. After the Vietnam War, the offices would conduct investigations and initial identifications before returning remains to the United States.
An earlier iteration of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency returned to Hawaii in the late 1970s, and in the early 1980s, DoD stood up a MIA office in Hanoi.
This work continued until the early 1990s before another attempt to streamline Joint Task Force Full Accounting and the Central Identification Laboratory. “We’ve always had the mission,” Shaw said. “It’s continued to evolve over the years, and we can trace our roots directly back to the old Army Graves Registration Service that policed the battlefields after World War II.”
A Noble Mission
Shaw, a retired Marine Corps officer, said this mission not only is noble, but also is relatable anywhere in the world.
“No matter where you go, people can identify with this,” he said. “Our primary mission is to bring back our missing servicemen and women, … and it’s something that everyone can get behind.”
But for the United States and the host nations in which it operates, it’s also a reminder of the terrible price of war, Shaw said.
“It really is something that strikes in the heart -- not just for us, but for our friends and allies as we jointly execute this mission with those host nation partners,” he said. “Former enemies now have become allies and join us in our search for the missing. As human beings, we have much more in common than we do differences.”
(Follow Amaani Lyle on Twitter: @LyleDoDNews)