US pushes search for lost WWII vets

  • 10/08/2015
US pushes search for lost WWII vets

Long dead but little forgotten, US soldiers who disappeared across the globe during World War II are being reunited with their loved ones in a dogged push to find and bring home their bodies.

From the forests of Germany to the jungles of Papua New Guinea, US experts employed by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency - among them historians, archaeologists and forensic experts - are the main sleuths.

When recovery of a body is possible, the Pentagon specialists turn the remains over to an ultra-modern lab in Hawaii for identification and then wait for the ultimate reward: bringing the bereaved back together with their long-lost relatives.

Stephen Johnson, a historian-investigator, recalled how a delighted woman, whose father had been found in a German forest, exclaimed: "You gave me back my daddy."

"I think of her when I work on a case," Johnson said.

The woman, now a mother and grandmother, "had come to peace" after finding out the exact fate of her father, who died when she was 18 months old, Johnson said.

Sandi Jones, who lives in Montana, said she felt immense joy when the agency called her in June 2014 to say that her uncle had been found 70 years after his plane went down in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.

"I was flabbergasted," the 60-year-old said.

The uncle, whose photo Jones kept even though her grandparents refused to speak of him, was buried near the family ranch with honours in the presence of US Air Force officials.

Johnson said the willingness to return a soldier at any cost dates back to the nation's birth.

President George Washington, the first head of the US military, thought that "the allegiance of the Army to the nation was directly tied to the allegiance of the nation to the Army," he said.

"You don't stop being a member of the US military because you die," he added.

It is this logic that has driven the POW/MIA agency to take on a project to exhume 388 sailors and Marines who were killed aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

At the time, remains of most of the crew could not be identified after spending weeks in the water, and the bodies were interred at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

Now the agency hopes to identify remains through dental and DNA analysis - a daunting task considering that the bones are mixed together, Johnson said.

Just over 73,000 US World War II soldiers are still missing or unidentified according to official figures, with nearly 40,00 likely never to be found.