Accounting for America's Missing Is a Daily Effort
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 8, 1998 Each day hundreds of U.S. military and civilian personnel work to find out what happened to America's missing in action.
These investigators trudge through all climates and terrain and pore over the archives of former enemies seeking information about America's missing persons from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War.
Resolving the fates of Americans missing in action has the highest national priority, said J. Alan Liotta, acting director of DoD's POW/Missing Personnel Office in Arlington, Va.
The POW/Missing Personnel Office conducts a robust program of investigations, archival research, oral history interviews and remains recovery efforts throughout the world. The U.S. government's resources include the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, located in several places around the world; the Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii; the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md.; Defense Intelligence Agency's Operation Stony Beach in Bangkok, Thailand; and the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory in San Antonio, Texas.
Liotta's office coordinates the effort.
He said fullest accounting means the U.S. government is committed to service members and their families to bring missing personnel home -- "no matter where it takes us, no matter how long it takes and no matter the nature of the conflict. Our goal is to rescue service members who find themselves in harm's way -- to bring them home to their families and loved ones in honor of the sacrifices they made when their nation called."
Investigative teams use the latest technology and most sophisticated intelligence techniques in their searches.
Liotta noted they conduct operations in hostile foreign environments. "Our young men and women find themselves in the jungles of Southeast Asia, in the icy mountains of China or on the rugged hillsides of North Korea," he said. "Their searches also take them to New Guinea, Russia and the jungles of South America. They seek information in the archives of our former presidents, or in the basements of foreign museums not opened to Westerners. Their individual dedication to these missions is an inspiration to the families for whom they seek answers.
Since the end of the Vietnam war, DoD has accounted for 493 previously unaccounted-for Americans, Liotta said.
"In North Korea, we're engaged in our fifth joint operation," he said. "We have recovered remains of American soldiers and have identified one and returned him to his loved ones for burial with full military honors."
He said operations in North Korea offer the potential for recovering hundreds more remains. "Our relationship with the North Koreans is unprecedented," Liotta said. "And we're very pleased that this humanitarian mission of ours keeps moving forward. For 1998, for example, we reached an agreement to conduct five joint field operations. That's the number we now conduct in Vietnam and Laos."
Liotta said America's efforts to account for its missing servicemen have become well-known to the local Vietnamese population, which at times has provided helpful information. For example, a villager searching for scrap metal found an almost complete skeleton in tattered U.S. clothing and with an identification tag attached. The joint task force detachment in Hanoi dispatched a team to investigate the discovery. The remains were repatriated to the Central Identification Laboratory for further analysis and were identified in March 1998.
In 1997, the combined POW-MIA efforts culminated in the repatriation of 31 remains of possible Americans from Southeast Asia. Also last year, DoD officials positively identified 35 remains from previous repatriations. Another 52 previously recovered remains are undergoing forensic analysis at the Hawaii lab.
DoD's efforts remain committed. There are still 88,320 American service members missing in action -- 2,090 in Southeast Asia, 8,100 from the Korean War, 78,000 from World War II and 130 from the Cold War, Liotta said.