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Historians Piece Puzzle Together in Search for Missing Troops

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 22, 2008 – Before any American recovery team sets foot on foreign soil in search of missing servicemembers’ remains, historians at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command must painstakingly piece together the servicemembers’ final moments in the hopes of pinpointing their location.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Christopher McDermott, a historian for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command’s Central Identification Lab, shows the filing system for cases under investigation. Historians piece together information from databases, tips that come in from around the world and information in case files to determine first if the site is likely to yield the remains of missing servicemembers. Defense Dept. photo by Fred W. Baker III

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

It’s a process that can take months or years, as bits of information filter into the command from varying sources. JPAC is one of a handful of Defense Department offices charged with recovering missing servicemembers.

The historians at the command’s Hawaii headquarters are the starting point for the cases, and tips come in from all around the world, either through the JPAC’s Web site or by referral, said Christopher McDermott, a historian for JPAC’s Central Identification Lab.

“Every bit of new information that comes into the command finds its way to us, and our job is to determine if it is a valid lead,” McDermott said.

The tip can start with a farmer finding military airplane wreckage in his field as it is plowed. Sometimes they contact local history enthusiasts, or call police or other government officials, McDermott said. The information is filtered through embassies, military channels or other contacts who know of the JPAC’s mission. Sometimes, people look up the JPAC site and submit information there, he added.

The four JPAC historians work on hundreds of cases each, all at varying stages in the investigation. Many times, information that comes in relates to an open case, but sometimes it’s information that opens a new case.

Rarely does one piece of information come in that provides all of the details that lead to a recovery and identification, McDermott said. Instead, all of the information is pieced together like a puzzle by the historians to make a complete picture of the details of the death and location of the servicemember.

Historians pore through databases of historical information and servicemembers’ official records. They search online for documents, maps, reports and newspaper articles. They work with foreign governments for access to their official documents.

The challenge, McDermott said, is that any one source seldom has an abundance of information. The reason the servicemember is missing, after all, is that not enough information was available at the time he or she went missing, he noted. If there was, he said, the servicemember likely would already have been recovered.

“There’s a large number cited for the number of people still missing after World War II, but what that belies is the massive [recovery] effort that was undertaken after the war,” McDermott said.

The JPAC lists nearly 80,000 servicemembers still missing from World War II. After the war in Europe was over in 1946, the American Graves Registration Command -- in charge of the post-war search for missing servicemembers -- conducted 325,000 field investigations in Europe alone.

“The individuals that are still missing, typically … they were not able to put all those pieces together,” McDermott said.

Large, massed formations of troop attacks, massive areas of operations and poor navigational and other technologies all led to many U.S. troops scattered about the regions of past wars with little or no information as to their final resting places. That, combined with relocated or dead witnesses, poorly drawn maps, the changing of town names and other significant data, make McDermott’s job no easy task.

“What we’re really trying to do is identify which cases make the most practical sense for our command and that have a high likelihood of yielding evidence that will be identifiable,” McDermott said.

The historians serve as the hub of information as a case moves through the recovery and identification process. They work with research teams as they go into the field to investigate a promising recovery site. Witness reports are gathered from local citizens, if available. Historians survey local newspapers, libraries, courts, museums and government agencies to get as many details as they can.

“We’re taking advantage of sources that are very far-flung from what traditional historians will look at,” McDermott said. “For all these cases where somebody is still missing, that usually means there was some discrepancy, some omission along the way. So we’re always trying to plug that gap, and it’s hard to predict what source will provide that.”

If the case shows merit, it moves forward, and the historians work with the operations teams to start the process of sending out a recovery team. They later work with the lab scientists, if a recovery is made, to help identify unit insignia, badges and other personal effects if any are found. If there is not yet enough information to send out a recovery team, the case is stored in JPAC’s massive archives, in hopes that a later piece of information might provide the missing piece of the puzzle.

Despite the volume of cases and the mounds of information each represents, the servicemembers’ stories become more personal as information is sorted, and what starts as a case number begins to take on a face with a family and a life, McDermott said.

“It’s very hard not to stay connected to the cases in a strong way when you sit and you read that letter from a mother 60 years ago experiencing such a terrible pain over the loss,” he said.

And, McDermott said, the emotion resonates even with later generations who did not know the servicemember directly.

“They’ll remember that their grandmother still cried and kept that picture of her boy who never came back from the war on the wall until the day she died,” McDermott said. “And that’s still a very powerful marker in their own life.”

To date, JPAC has identified more than 1,400 Americans who had been listed as missing. The lab identifies, on average, about six individuals a month. Its research and recovery teams deploy on about 70 missions a year around the world.

About 88,000 servicemembers still are listed as missing. Some of them no longer lie on the battlefield or at sea. They are recovered, but their unidentified remains are interred in rows of white boxes at the JPAC, alphabetized, categorized, and waiting.

And historians keep searching for a new clue, a new find, a new piece of information or a new technology that will move that case forward toward an identification, and a return to their waiting family members.

“What it comes down to is … that individual deserves to be back home with their families,” McDermott said.

That’s what keeps the historians working with a dogged determination, sifting through tons of data and plowing through bureaucracies both foreign and domestic, piecing together information that by itself offers nothing, but when combined with a box full of other evidence, makes up the life and the death of a U.S. servicemember.

“That’s what keeps you doing it,” McDermott said. “That’s what keeps you trying to make sure these cases don’t get lost sight of, and that they continue to move forward toward some kind of resolution.”

(This is the third in a series of AFPS articles on the Defense Department's efforts to account for missing servicemembers. AFPS reporter Fred W. Baker III talked with the leaders of the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office in Crystal City, Va., and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, and others involved in the quest to bring closure to the families of those lost in the line of duty. Baker then traveled to Germany to the site of an excavation where a JPAC recovery team searched for the remains of a downed World War II fighter pilot.)

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Related Sites:
Special Report: Honoring the Pledge
Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command

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