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War Dead Give Up Their Secrets – Part 1

Some 429 sailors and marines were killed when the battleship USS Oklahoma capsized during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Only 35 of the KIA were initially identified, but new DNA research by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has led to the identification of more than 100 of the Oklahoma “unknowns”.

The subject of identifying war remains is as fascinating as it is gruesome. Thanks to advances in DNA science, more and more KIA are being identified and returned to their families for honored burials.

Almost on a weekly basis, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announces new identifications of American service members killed in past wars.

War remains continue to generate headlines. The United States and North Korea are currently in an awkward standoff about the remains of 200 U.S. service members killed in the Korean War. That war ended in an armistice 65 years ago.

President Donald Trump announced at his June 12 summit with Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un that North Korea would be releasing the remains and hinted they had already been transferred to American officials.

But the remains are apparently in limbo, which is standard operating procedure for North Korea, according to American officials who have negotiated with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
These officials say North Korea uses remains for negotiating leverage because they know Americans care deeply about their loved ones lost in war. Indeed, several families have been interviewed in the news media recently expressing the hope their relatives will be among the latest group.

U.S. and North Korean generals met July 16, and American officials say “progress” was made. On July 17, North Korea told American officials the remains of 55 soldiers will be returned “in the next two weeks.” The official cautioned the exact number of remains will have to be confirmed. What he didn’t say is the North Koreans have been known to exaggerate the number of individuals repatriated by including animal bones in the remains.

U.S. officials estimate nearly 8,000 Americans are unaccounted from the Korean War, including more than 5,000 who died in what is now North Korean territory.

The last repatriation was in 2007 when former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson brought home the remains of six Americans. Negotiations to release more American remains broke down during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

A little-known fact about the Korean situation is the United States pays North Korea a “fee” for remains. Pentagon officials insist the payments, which have exceeded $20 million since 1990, are to cover the costs of recovery and transportation, and are not a ransom for the remains themselves.

We’ll have to wait and see what the price tag will be on the latest group of Americans.

Bittersweet story
Putting the frustrating Korean situation aside, much more positive news emerges on a regular basis from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s identification laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickman in Hawaii.

New identifications are regularly announced along with accounts of solemn burial observances as family members lay their long-lost loved ones to a final, honored rest. Some of the recent cases include

  • Army Pfc. Willard Jenkins killed in the Netherlands during Operation Market Garden in 1944 was identified this July 3. His body was listed as an “unknown” when it was interred in the American cemetery in Margraten, Netherlands. Funeral services stateside are pending.
  • Navy Fireman 1st Class Raymond R. Camery, killed during the Pearl Harbor attack when the USS Oklahoma capsized, was accounted for this March. In 2015, DPAA disinterred remains from the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, known as the Punchbowl, and began looking for DNA matches provided by family members.
  • The story of another USS Oklahoma sailor, Navy Seaman 1st Class James C. Solomon of Texas, illustrates the bittersweet nature of investigating war dead and missing. The American Graves Registration Service disinterred the remains of about three dozen USS Oklahoma casualties in 1947, but using the scientific techniques available at the time was unable to identify Solomon, and he was reburied in the Punchbowl. His remains were part of the renewed effort in 2015, which yielded a positive match in 2017. The circle will finally be closed when Solomon is laid to rest with full military honors in his hometown of Forestburg, Texas, on July 14, according to DPAA.
National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, known as the Punchbowl.

Vietnam – The War for POWs/MIAs
American families have always lobbied their political representatives and military authorities to bring their missing service members home. As far back as the end of the Revolutionary War, officials tried to gather and identify war remains (more about that in my next blog).

But the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975, pushed the issue of missing-in-action and prisoners-of-war to the forefront of our national consciousness. And it has stayed there, thanks to military units, veterans groups and motorcycle clubs flying the iconic and ubiquitous black and white POW/MIA flag at their ceremonies, meeting houses and parades.

WW II veteran Newt Heisley, a pilot in the Pacific theater, designed the POW/MIA flag in 1971. Heisley, who was art director at Annin and Co., died in 2009, but saw his flag become the embodiment of America’s concern for its missing warriors. A U.S. House of Representatives resolution in 1998 even lays out rules for flying the POW/MIA flag from certain federal buildings and memorials.

What triggered the POW/MIA movement after Vietnam was a tragic mish-mash of conflicting and confusing numbers, unconfirmed sightings and government obfuscation in the wake of America’s military debacle.

Websites that keep track of these things say 1,606 Americans are “unaccounted for” in Southeast Asia, which includes Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Chinese territorial waters.

A sad statistic – 470 Americans from Vietnam proper are in a “non-recoverable” category. Officials have concluded these individuals died, but it is impossible to recover their remains.

Highlighting the numbers problem and fueling the POW/MIA debate was an official Defense Department publication that listed every American who ever went missing or was captured in Southeast Asia.
MIA activists did the math and discovered there was a discrepancy of 500 names unaccounted for. The natural conclusion was these unlucky souls were being held as POWs someplace in Southeast Asia.

Other experts dispute the activists and say the government list included non-Americans and Americans who were very much alive but were wandering around Southeast Asia engaged in smuggling and other criminal activity and didn’t necessarily want to come home.

The POW story took on a life of its own and persists to this day. MIA activists have been known to snoop around the jungles looking for the secret prisons until local authorities kick them out. The story was still going strong in 1985 when Sylvester Stallone brought the issue to theaters with his hit movie, Rambo: First Blood Part 2, which portrayed the rescue of American POWs, along with the exposure of evil government agents trying to cover it all up.

With the rise of social media, the countless skirmishes and shooting wars America finds itself in (see the October 2017 confusing account of four Special Forces deaths in Niger, Africa) and the continued machinations of North Korea, it is unlikely the POW/MIA issue will ever go away.

In my next blog, I will discuss more history of war dead and missing including controversies in other countries that persist to this day.

Posted in Historical Site, War History, War Movie

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