Few Americans are aware of the enormous effort the United States Government makes to return those who fall in battle, to rest in their native soil. During a conflict, extraordinary efforts are devoted to preventing the capture or isolation of military personnel. Better training, equipment and tactics have greatly reduced the number of soldiers “missing in action” in each succeeding conflict, but the fog of war and the confusion of battle makes it sadly inevitable that there will be some warriors not accounted for when the guns fall silent.
The end of a war, however, does not end the nation’s efforts. After each conflict, a massive operation has been undertaken to scour battlefields in a search for the fallen whose remains were not recovered right away. World War II post-hostilities remains recovery operations began almost immediately after the war ended and went on until 1949. Nearly 17,000 soldiers, airmen and marines were accounted for during this four-year period. At the end of the Korean War, recovery operations were conducted in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, but the north was inaccessible. The same was true in the immediate post-war period in Vietnam, with the entirety of Vietnam closed to us for several years.
Today, though, the search continues. Military and civilian, men and women, serving in organizations of the U.S. Department of Defense, scour ancient battlefields from Pleiku to Papua New Guinea to Poland; they pore over maps and yellowed documents that have been stored for decades in dusty warehouses; they visit small towns and villages to talk to possible witnesses to old wartime incidents; they labor in labs over fragmentary pieces of bone or military equipment; all in an effort to locate, identify and return with honor, those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
The numbers who didn’t return are staggering. Of the Americans who died in World War II, nearly 78,000 remain unaccounted for. Many are in watery graves, lost or buried at sea and beyond reach. Some lie in honored though anonymous rest as unknowns in national memorial cemeteries around the world. But the fate and final resting place of some 30,000 still remains a mystery.
Korea has often been called “the forgotten war.” But, for the remaining comrades and relatives of over 8,000 soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines who have not returned home from that war, it is seared into their memories. The families of some 1,700 military personnel who did not return home from Vietnam have been waiting for 37 years or more for answers regarding their fates.
While these sobering statistics might not intrude on the consciousness of most Americans, the government has not forgotten, nor has it abandoned the search.
Within the Defense Department, a diverse network of some 600 military and civilians work tirelessly in the search for the missing. In Washington, DC, the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) employs around 130 military and civilian specialists who sit at the center of a web of people who, despite the modest numbers, cover the globe. Researchers and analysts study maps and files and conduct interviews to assist in pinpointing areas on the ground for search teams. Others work with the casualty offices of the military services, reaching out to family members, not only to answer their questions, but to find information that might help in the search.
Based in Hawaii, the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC) is an organization of military and civilian personnel who travel in investigation and recovery teams to locations around the world in their search for the missing. These teams work in dense jungles, on steep ridgelines and mountains, and dive in lagoons, lakes and rivers, spending as long as 45 days in the field in their quest for the truth. JPAC also operates the most sophisticated forensic identification lab in the world; working often with tiny fragments, the scientists are able to identify soldiers who have been missing for more than 60 years.
Assisting DPMO and JPAC in the task of identifying the missing, the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) in Rockville, Maryland, uses the latest DNA technology, while the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory (LSEL), in San Antonio, Texas, has specialists in life support and other technical equipment, and is instrumental of determining the events of air crashes.
Fans of the CSI television series would be amazed at what these talented and dedicated scientists, researchers, and other specialists can do. Without the assistance of screen writers to ensure resolution of the case before the last commercial, they can recreate events of 60 years in the past. It sometimes takes years before the last piece of evidence or information falls into place to help solve the case and establish identification, but they continue to doggedly pursue each case, tracking down each clue, until they find it.
While we go about our daily lives, secure in our homes, and taking our freedom for granted, these brave volunteers go into harm’s way to honor those who bought our freedom with their blood. They brave poisonous snakes and insects, and endure harsh living conditions; giving up time with their families so that other families might know peace. The mission to find and identify our missing is not without peril. Some have given their lives in the search. In 1973, a young captain involved in one of the early searches after the Vietnam War, was gunned down by a Vietnamese unit, and in 2001, 8 soldiers from JPAC perished in a helicopter crash in Vietnam, along with 7 Vietnamese and 2 New Zealand crew members who were assisting them.
When you go to sleep tonight, pause a moment and give a thought to the many men and women who go into harm’s way to make it possible for you to sleep undisturbed. The unofficial motto of the military; a creed that all live by, is “no one is left behind.” The men and women of DPMO, JPAC, AFDIL, LSEL, and the service casualty offices, are keeping that promise on behalf of us all.
For more information on the US effort to account for the missing from past wars, go to the DPMO website at http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/.