America Will Never Forget Its Missing Servicemembers
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 13, 2004 The U.S. government will never forget about its missing personnel and won't stop trying to bring them home to their loved ones, said the Defense Department's top prisoner of war and missing personnel official.
"That's a commitment that the United States government has demonstrated over the years that you might say is the gold standard for the world," said Jerry D. Jennings, deputy assistant secretary of defense for prisoner of war/missing personnel affairs, during a Sept. 10 interview with the Pentagon Channel.
"Since it's a worldwide mission, I have the opportunity to talk to leaders from various countries around the world, from Russia to Papa New Guinea. Whether large or small, these leaders all say they wish they could do what we do not build monuments, not just have some memorial, but actually search for and recover our loved ones when they're missing and bring them home."
He pointed out his office's two-part mission: the personnel accounting part, which is locating and recovering more than 88,000 missing American servicemembers and the personnel-recovery mission, which is search and rescue. "So even in the current wars, when the guys go down, women go down and they're missing on the battlefield, we bring them back, hopefully alive," Jennings said. "But if not alive, we bring their remains back."
The United States is the only country in the world with the tradition of bringing its missing personnel home. For example, the tradition for the British, Australians and others is to bury their dead where they fall. Consequently, there are many "commonwealth" cemeteries around the world, Jennings noted.
"The country that probably comes closest to us in terms of putting premium on returning the missing is Israel," he said. "And they do a really good job with limited resources."
Search and recovery teams work 24-7 to locate and recover remains and to extract missing servicemembers from the jaws of the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Jennings emphasized that the effort to account for America's missing will never end. "If you do go into harm's way and end up missing, our combat search and rescue and personnel recovery teams will try to bring you back whole, alive, healthy and well," he said.
"But if that's not possible, you're not going to be left out there," he added. "We're going to come after you and bring you back. That's a solemn promise we make to our fighting men and women."
America's search for missing personnel goes back to World War II. "The countries we're concentrating on now for World War II recoveries are primarily Burma and Papua, New Guinea," Jennings said. "We have remains all over the islands in the Pacific, but large numbers are concentrated in those two countries."
In Burma, C-46 pilots flew "The Hump" in the Far East from Indian air bases over the Himalaya Mountains and into China, supplying the Chinese in the war against the Japanese in World War II, Jennings noted. "We lost hundreds of aircraft more than 500 and more than 1,200 crewmembers," he said. "We're in the business right now of identifying the sites. We're one of the few offices in the U.S. government that has regular dialogue with the Burmese.
"Our issue is humanitarian; it's bringing our warriors home," he said. "We've so far succeeded in dealing with their leadership and gaining access to the country to the sites and conducting recovery operations."
He said during World War II huge battles were fought in Papua, New Guinea, leaving more than 1,000 servicemen missing. "That's a staggering number, but I was recently in Japan talking to my counterparts with the Japanese government's defense ministry and leadership, and they pointed out that they have nearly 70,000 missing in Papua, New Guinea," Jennings said. "They have 1.2 million missing totally in the Pacific. So we have big numbers but not the biggest numbers.
"In many places we work that's the case," he said. "Russia, of course, there are millions missing. So our numbers look rather meager compared to some of our friends and former enemies."
The United States has about 78,000 missing from World War II, including about 39,000 at-sea losses. "Many of those are not recoverable right now because we don't have the technology to search the ocean floor," Jennings explained. "But we expect that at some future date we'll be able to do that."
There are 8,100 missing American servicemen from the Korean War, according to Jennings. "Similar to Burma, we're the only office that conducts regular negotiations with the North Korean government," he said. "I meet at least once a year with my counterpart, a senior general from the North Korean army and we negotiate access to North Korea, send our troops into North Korea. We have to provide for every aspect of the operation, fuel oil, security, transportation and food.
"We're in their country, so we have to be very careful how we operate," he noted. But under the humanitarian umbrella "we've been fortunate and have succeeded and continued operations."
"This year, we'll be going into our fifth operation in one year," he said. "On Memorial Day I was on the peninsula in Seoul (South Korea) and we had a repatriation ceremony with the largest number of recoveries in the history of our operation. We brought what we believe were 19 sets of remains out of the Chosin Reservoir."
Jennings noted that he spoke to more than 7,000 members of the American Legion at the organization's annual conference in Nashville, Tenn., recently, adding that one of the most-sensitive veterans issues is POW/MIA. "They're almost like a board of directors," he pointed out. "They want to know what we're doing, what success we're having, where we're having problems and they're very helpful to us."
He noted that his office has regular contact with families of the missing. "Over the year, we receive thousands of letters and phone calls," Jennings said. "The most effective vehicle for us is something called the family update. We've identified all the family members of the missing across the country. We have computer plotting where we zero in on a major city and identify the family members who live within 300 miles of that city and invite them into a conference."
The family updates are "a terribly emotional thing," Jennings said. Recalling attending a such session in Little Rock, Ark., Jennings said, "A very elderly lady came out to me and said, 'Could I see you privately.'" They sat down at a table and the woman started talking about her 18-year-old boy who went off to war in Korea.
"She was talking about this young man and how much she loved him and how much she missed him, and started crying," Jennings said. "She said, 'I would recognize him today if he walked through that door.'
"I'm thinking ma'am, your 18-year-old boy you wouldn't recognize at all; he's going be like 68 years old," he said. "What they forget is we don't find whole bodies. We find fragments of bones, and rarely a full skeleton. But in her mind, a mother's love is so powerful, that this boy is still in the flesh and she'd recognize him in a minute. And she wants him back."
When families attend the updates, they're given all the available information. "Most of our work doesn't lead to recovery," Jennings noted. "It's a detective effort. It's going out there in Korea getting a unit diary and finding out that a unit fought at the Chosin and trying to identify those that survived the battle, those that are missing and trying to find out where they might be.
"It takes a tremendous amount of effort in the files, archives and on the ground," he pointed out. "In Vietnam, it's a little bit easier and a lot of the loses were air loses. If (it's) a Phantom F-4 (fighter jet) that went into a mountainside, you may not know where the precise location is. But you know if you find a tail number, or some serial number off the gear with that aircraft, you probably got that pilot. The guy who left with that bird is probably the guy you're going to find."
Jennings said when he took the job, one of his initiatives was to bring more senior leadership from the various countries to the forefront so the issue didn't get lost in the bureaucracy of the countries where we work.
"So I invited the senior most leaders from the Vietnam War from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to meet with me for consultations," Jennings said. "The first meeting we had was two years ago and it was successful. And tried to carve out a vision for the future, and it worked. We had the second meeting this year in Cambodia and I invited the prime minister to host the meeting. I didn't know if he would accept or not, but he showed up and opened the meeting."
He said one of the most dramatic examples of sharing with another country occurred when a member of the U.S. Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIA, of which he's co-chairman, contacted him requesting information. "They had a Russian who wanted information about a relative who was missing and they believed the information was in our files," Jennings explained. "We get thousands of files from the Russians to review about searching for our missing.
"We came up with a dossier on this individual," he said. "A year ago this month, I went over and we had a press conference and announced that I would be turning this file over to this citizen on her father who had been a POW in World War II. It demonstrated the U.S. helping the Russians with their missing."
Jennings said media from all over Europe and the U.S. recorded the event. The added attention, he noted, was because the file was that of Joseph Stalin's eldest son.
"The lady who had requested the file was the granddaughter of Joseph Stalin," Jennings said. "So that was a huge event. She'd heard rumors her entire life, but she learned for the first time exactly what happened to her father.
World War II veterans with tears in their eyes talk about their buddies who died. "Thank God there's an organization in the federal government that's doing something about that," Jennings said, "not just forgetting these guys. That was the defining moment in many of these veterans' lives. Whatever else they did with their life was pretty normal. But the idea that they went and fought on foreign lands for their country and for freedom and liberty and what we believe in is something that's still very precious to them.
"As long as we have the resources I think we're going to pursue this mission," he said.