There are 45,000 service members missing in action from World War II and other wars who experts say are recoverable. But the Pentagon's $100 million per year effort to identify them has solved surprisingly few cases—60 MIAs were sent home last year.
The military actually knows where many of the missing are: 9,400 service members are buried as "unknowns" in American cemeteries around the world. Armed with family stories and documents, John Eakin may have tracked down the remains of one of those men, Bud Kelder, a cousin who died in a World War II POW camp.
Here, in an edited interview, Eakin shares what he's learned about researching a loved one "missing in action," and fighting against the Pentagon.
One key obstacle is the Pentagon itself, which is rarely willing to disinter a grave to try to send that man home to his family.
What if someone doesn't know much about their relative's death?
That was the case with me in the beginning. In 2009, I didn't set out to recover the remains of my cousin. I was simply looking for genealogical information on the date and place of his death. About all that I knew about him was that he had been in the Bataan Death March and his remains were never returned to his family for burial. Growing up, it was one of those things that I was told never to ask about because it upset my grandparents.
A good starting point is the MIA database on the website of the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO).
What's next for more information? Can a family member get any files about their missing loved one?
The first thing any family member should do is request the Individual Deceased Personnel File for their family member. The IDPF is the key document in any MIA research. These files were classified and restricted from public access for many years, but are available now.
An IDPF contains all that is known about a serviceman's death and efforts to identify his remains. It typically includes death certificates, notifications of death, disposition of personnel property, information on burial, and often ends with the paperwork involved in providing a veterans headstone. The IDPF will often direct further investigation. It took over three months for the Army to retrieve Bud's IDPF from the archives, but it was worth the wait as it was the key to the whole case.
Bud's IDPF also contained several letters from Bud's parents to the Army asking that his remains be returned for burial. Their grief at not being able to bury their son was almost palpable.
Family members can obtain the IDPF from the appropriate Service Casualty Office. (It is important to know that the Air Force didn't come in to being until 1947 and missing personnel from the old Army Air Corps are handled by the Army Casualty Office.)
U.S. Army (and the Air Corps)
Department of the Army
Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operations Center
1600 Spearhead Div Ave., Dept 450
Fort Knox, Kentucky, 40122-5405
Tel: 1 (800) 892-2490
U.S. Marine Corps
Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps
Manpower and Reserve Affairs (MRC)Personal and Family Readiness Division
3280 Russell Road
Quantico, Virginia, 22134-5103
Tel: 1 (800) 847-1597
Navy Personnel Command
Casualty Assistance Division (OPNAV N135C)
5720 Integrity Drive
Millington, Tennessee, 38055-6210
Tel: 1 (800) 443-9298
Bud's file showed that the Army tried over a period of years to identify him, but he was eventually determined "non-recoverable," as was the case for thousands of men. What happened to the remains the military found after the war but couldn't identify?
In most cases, unidentified remains were buried as unknowns either in a Department of Veteran Affairs or American Battle Monuments Commission cemetery. The unidentified remains each have an IDPF, which is identified with an "X" and a number, rather than a name. So they are often referred to as "X-files."
So could someone tell from the IDPF file that their loved one's remains were recovered but just not identified? In other words, that their loved one is an X-file?
IDPFs on people whose remains were determined to be non-recoverable, like Bud, often contain references to one or more X-files that are associated with that person, but could not be positively identified as that person. By the same token, X-files often list the names of one or more persons they are associated with.
So in the case of Bud Kelder, we started with his IDPF which referenced ten unidentified remains which had been given the numbers X812, X814, X815, X816, X818, X820, X821, X822, X823, X824. The Army knew that Bud was one of these unidentified remains, they just didn't know which one. But we knew that Bud had gold dental inlays, and when we reviewed the dental charts in the X-files only X816 had gold inlays.
How does someone get X-files and what can they expect from them?
If the IDPF references X-files, they may be obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request or by asking the appropriate service casualty office. Family members should look for military unit historical associations or groups of other family members of persons who died in the same area. Often these groups will have databases of all the X-files associated with the same event or area.
In some cases, X-files contain little to no identifying information—no place of death, no dental chart, not much of anything which will help to identify the remains.
However, about 50 percent of the thousands of X-files I have been through have an associated name or names. In most of these cases the military had a pretty good idea who it was, but lacked that last little bit of evidence needed to be sure. Most of the rest have some other piece of information that will help narrow down the possible identities.
The X-file will usually show where the remains were buried.
Anything else that's important for a family member to do?
I sincerely hope that every WWII MIA family will contact the appropriate service casualty office and assist them in finding the appropriate family members to collect a DNA reference sample from. DNA has become essential to the identification process and depends on the cooperation of every WWII MIA family.
Collection of the DNA sample is a simple process. The military will overnight a collection kit consisting of a few cheek swabs and a return envelope. Blood samples are no longer used.
There are more than 950 men like Bud who died in the Cabanatuan POW camp and weren't identified after WWII. They are buried as X-files in the cemetery in Manila. Unlike some of the other X-files that contain limited identifying information, the Cabanatuan X-files make up a known population of men: The POWs kept list of all those who died in the camp. So the military knows who all the 953 X-files could possibly be, they just haven't matched each name with a body.
One key obstacle, as we detailed in our story, is the Pentagon itself, which is rarely willing to disinter a grave to try to send that man home to his family.
But another needed step is getting family DNA families to cross reference with any remains.
Although the Army has about 10,000 DNA samples already from WWII MIA families, it doesn't categorize them into smaller sections, such as by theater or battle. Eakin, though, has done this for Cabanatuan. He combed through the Army's records and found that they have family DNA samples from family members of approximately 345 of the Cabanatuan unknowns. About 608 are left in need of DNA.
If you have a family member who died at the Cabanatuan POW camp and wasn't sent home for burial, then a sample of your DNA could be helpful in getting your loved one identified. Giving DNA is easy and painless. All you have to do is rub the inside of your cheek with a cotton swab. The military will send you a kit.