By Kevin T. Hall
When Gillian first approached me about writing for the blog, I agreed happily as it is a great opportunity to explain my job as a historian for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) and provide a brief history of the recovery of U.S. soldiers, who went missing during foreign wars. But more importantly in part two of this post to offer some advice, based on my experiences, regarding what students can do during their studies to be best prepared for the job market.
The DPAA is an agency within the Department of Defense tasked with finding, recovering, and identifying over 81,000 U.S. personnel who went missing between World War II and the Gulf Wars. As a historian in the Indo-Pacific Directorate, the main conflict on which I focus is the Korean War. My main duty involves researching the events surrounding the loss of U.S. soldiers on the Korean peninsula, including the most likely location of their remains. This information partially determines where field teams conduct their searches, supports forensic analysis once remains are recovered or disinterred, and provides families with current, detailed information regarding the loss of their family member. It is truly a meaningful job to not only help account for these missing servicemen who gave the ultimate sacrifice, but also to help provide long-awaited answers and closure for families.
The recovery of U.S. soldiers’ remains has a long history that dates to the Spanish-American War. Unique to the States, no other country seeks the repatriation of its missing soldiers from foreign soil. Following both World Wars, the American Graves Registration Services (AGRS) worked tirelessly to provide the permanent internment of servicemen in foreign cemeteries, or, if families so chose, the repatriation of soldiers’ remains. While this set the standards for the burial and repatriation of soldiers during subsequent conflicts, it was not until the Korean War that concurrent returns became standard. This meant that the AGRS repatriated remains before the cessation of hostilities—something that had never been done. This change in policy reflected the rapidly changing battle lines, challenging terrain, logistic difficulties, as well as the initial shortage of AGRS members, as every soldier was needed to fight.
During the first several months of war, soldiers are forced to quickly bury their deceased comrades in makeshift cemeteries or even in foxholes. In numerous instances, U.S. forces were forced to leave the dead and wounded where they rested, as enemy forces overran their positions, and withdrawal was vital for their survival. While U.S. forces recorded the location as best as possible, the remains were often gone once they returned. Soldiers’ remains were buried in unknown locations by locals and the wounded were taken prisoner. However, being a POW offered little safety, with numerous examples of torture and murder.
While concurrent returns aids in identification, numerous isolated graves and unknown burials makes accounting for lost servicemen complicated. Even if the isolated graves were clearly marked, the devastation wreaked and often destroyed any recognizable signs and occasionally, locals would move the remains of soldiers to unknown areas. Moreover, any written or verbal account of such burials had to survive the war. While this did hinder AGRS efforts, they were able to recover over 30,000 American service men from 1951 to 1955, and identified over 97 percent of the remains.
The remains ready to be repatriated from Korea were sent to the Central Identification Unit in Kokura, Japan to be processed, identified, and prepared for transport and burial. The task was daunting and overwhelming, as identifying remains could be difficult, and even impossible, given their state and the technology available at the time. It caused families great anguish waiting to receive an update about their missing son, father, brother, grandson, or nephew, and this suffering was further compounded the longer their status remained “Missing-in-Action” (MIA). For the remains that could not be identified, they were interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii as “Unknowns.”
Currently, the DPAA is disinterring these Unknown Korean War servicemen in several phases to identify them as well as the ongoing investigations and searches in South Korea. While there have been successful exchanges of U.S. remains from North Korea in the past, it has been difficult to conduct investigations there due to tense political relations. Despite this, the North Korean government repatriated 55 boxes of remains in the summer of 2018. These are currently undergoing analysis for identification. There are currently over 7,600 U.S. soldiers still unaccounted from the Korean War.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit a crash site of WWII B-24 Liberator Bomber (44-40332). Where I gained a deeper understanding about the search and recovery missions. This aircraft in particular crashed on the island of Oahu on May 5, 1944, after it departed Hickam airfield. It failed to clear the ridgeline and subsequently crashed, killing all ten airmen (three of whom were actually from Michigan). The airmen’s remains were recovered.
With the sole mission of the DPAA being to account for missing servicemen, relics, artifacts, and wreckage are usually left behind. That is, unless it can assist in identifying remains. After a few mile hike, we had to climb down a ravine to see some of the remaining wreckage. Over the years, the wreckage slid down into the valley below and is very difficult to access. The boot heel discovered is possibly from one of the crewmembers.
Kevin T. Hall is a recently graduated PhD from the Central Michigan University Department of History. He received his doctorate in 2018 under the supervision of Dr. Eric Johnson. He has now moved to Hawaii to work for the DPAA. His book: Terror Flyers: The Lynching of American Airmen in Nazi Germany is forthcoming with Indiana University Press.