News   Observances

DOD Still Seeks to Find Missing Service Members From World's Battlefields

Sept. 17, 2021 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

There are thousands of American service personnel missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War. About 75% of those are in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency estimates that almost 39,000 are recoverable, with the others being mostly deep, at-sea losses.

A bucket is lowered to a person suspended by a rope on the side of an embankment.
Ready to Catch
Space Force Master Sgt. Hanh Le, a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency recovery team linguist, prepares to catch a bucket during a DPAA recovery mission in Quang Nam province, Vietnam, June 29, 2021.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Jonathan McElderry
VIRIN: 210629-F-IY281-0494M
With a jungle in the background, people stand in a line as a bucket is passed from one person to another.
Passing Buckets
Local Vietnamese workers pass buckets down a hill during a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency recovery mission in Quang Nam province, Vietnam, June 13, 2021.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Jonathan McElderry
VIRIN: 210613-F-IY281-0280M

That agency is tasked with providing the fullest possible accounting for missing personnel from past conflicts to their families and the nation. The DPAA continually revises its missing count as more are found, Air Force Staff Sgt. Jonathan McElderry, a DPAA forensic photographer, said.

Each year, DPAA conducts investigation-and-recovery team missions throughout the world to pinpoint last known locations of missing Americans and to attempt to excavate their remains, he said, adding that these missions are often being done simultaneously at different parts of the globe.

Recovery teams use standard field archaeology methods in the excavation as directed by the on-site anthropologist. At a recovery site, the forensic anthropologist, who's also referred to as the recovery leader, directs the excavation much like a detective overseeing a crime scene, he said.

Other members of the team include a team leader, team sergeant, linguist, medic, life support technician, communications technician, forensic photographer, explosive ordnance disposal technician, and mortuary affairs specialists. Some teams include a mountaineer if the potential excavation area is on a mountainside, he said.

Three people look at debris in a large sieve as one person sprays it with a large hose.
Sifting Through
Members of a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency recovery team sift through dirt during a DPAA recovery mission in Quang Nam province, Vietnam, June 18, 2021.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Jonathan McElderry
VIRIN: 210618-F-IY281-0121M
A man stands in a pit and shovels dirt.
Shoveling Dirt
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Cody Wright, a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency recovery team member, shovels dirt during a recovery mission in Quang Binh province, Vietnam, July 3, 2021.
Photo By: Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Timothy Fowler
VIRIN: 210703-M-XY363-0011M

The number of personnel sent out to each country can vary from about 10 to more than 100. McElderry said they include service members from all branches of the military, as well as civilians.

Standard recovery missions last six to eight weeks, depending on the location and recovery methods used. 

Recovery sites can be as small as a few meters for individual burials to areas larger than the size of a football field for aircraft crashes, he said.

McElderry said each mission is unique, but there are certain processes each recovery has in common. The initial analysis occurs at the site, and the material is then brought back to the lab for additional examination.

At sea and in other bodies of water, divers search for remains.

A diver jumps into the water.
Underwater Recovery Mission
Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Corey Smith, a diver assigned to Regional Dive Locker Pacific, jumps into the water during a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency underwater recovery mission in Nha Trang province, Vietnam, May 27, 2021.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Mitchell Ryan
VIRIN: 210627-A-KI027-0175M
A diver searches the sea floor.
Underwater Recovery Op
Army Capt. Jacob McKorkle, assigned to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, dredges the sea floor during a March 2, 2020, underwater recovery operation aimed at searching for personnel who went missing off the coast of Ha Long Bay during the Vietnam War.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Tyler Thompson
VIRIN: 200302-N-QA919-0040M

So far, McElderry has been on three recovery missions, all in Vietnam, including a trip from May to July. He said recovery teams operated concurrently off the coast of Vietnam, as well as on land. His work was all done on land.

McElderry said his most recent mission was different from other two due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Operations were adjusted to allow for a 21-day quarantine in Vietnam, and there were various COVID-19 mitigation procedures and personal protective equipment on site. 

Besides the pandemic, another challenge was working in rugged mountains, he said. That involved hauling along safety equipment, such as ropes, harnesses, helmets and gloves. A professional mountaineer supervised the climbing and safety procedures.

Another challenge was the extreme heat and humidity and remote location, he said, mentioning that temperatures were consistently above 100℉.

Two women look at something in a plastic bag.
Processing Remains
Audrey Schaefer, left, and Larkin Kennedy, both anthropologists with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s laboratory at Offutt Air Base, Neb., process remains from the USS Oklahoma. The USS Oklahoma was sunk during Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941. In 2015, the lab received all of the unknown remains from the USS Oklahoma, which were disinterred from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
Photo By: Charles Haymond, Air Force
VIRIN: 190308-D-UX415-0004M
A woman looks at pages in a book.
Brianna Petersen
Brianna Petersen, an intern at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s laboratory at Offutt Air Base, Neb., consults a manual while conducting research, March 8, 2019. Petersen is working to identify unknown personnel from the USS Oklahoma, which was sunk during Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941. In 2015, the lab received all of the unknown remains from the USS Oklahoma, which were disinterred from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
Photo By: Charles Haymond, Air Force
VIRIN: 190308-D-UX415-0003M

"Despite these challenges, what kept me focused throughout the mission was just remembering why I was out there and how we could help the family members find a sense of closure for their loved ones who went missing. These service members gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country, so it's up to us to do our best to bring them home," he said.

Once the excavation is done, the remains undergo analysis and identification at the DPAA laboratories at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, and at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. They are the largest and most diverse skeletal identification laboratories in the world and are staffed by anthropologists, archaeologists and forensic odontologists who examine dental remains, according to the DPAA.

The lab uses mitochondrial DNA in about three-quarters of its cases. Samples taken from bones and teeth are analyzed at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, to determine the genetic sequence.

This sequence is compared with sequences from family reference samples provided by living individuals who are maternally related to the unidentified American. These family reference samples are collected, as needed, by the casualty and mortuary offices. Generally, all persons of the same maternal line have the same mtDNA sequences. 

A pair of hands holds a small specimen with tweezers.
Weighing a Specimen
Dr. Gregory E. Berg, lab case manager for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s scientific analysis directorate, weighs a portion of a test specimen in DPAA’s isotope lab on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, March 9, 2020.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. James Thompson
VIRIN: 200309-F-WW236-0043M
A man wearing a lab coat examines something in his hands.
Dr. Gregory E. Berg
Dr. Gregory E. Berg, lab case manager for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s scientific analysis directorate, weighs a portion of a test specimen in DPAA’s isotope lab on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, March 9, 2020.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. James Thompson
VIRIN: 200309-F-WW236-0017M

Since these sequences are rare but not unique within the general population, they cannot stand alone as evidence for identification. In addition to the factors previously mentioned, each separate line of evidence must be examined at the lab and correlated with all historical evidence. All reports undergo a thorough peer review process that includes an external review by independent experts.

"Working here at DPAA is so rewarding. Not only is this a very humbling experience, but it also gives me a great sense of honor to serve in the military. I couldn’t be more grateful to support such an impactful mission," McElderry said.

For More Information

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Past Conflicts