In 1953, in the wake of the Korean War, the unidentified remains of 848 soldiers were laid to rest at Punchbowl. More than half of these unknowns were recovered from battlefield cemeteries in South Korea; the rest were part of “Operation Glory,” a massive exchange of war dead between North Korea and the United Nations. All 848 unknowns were buried with honors in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. In 1958 four were disinterred, and one was sent to represent the Korean War at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, DC. The others were reburied at Punchbowl. Over the years, the remains of nineteen more Korean War unknowns recovered in the late 1950s through the early 1960s were buried in graves scattered throughout the cemetery, bringing the number to 866.
Over the last decade, JPAC has identified more than a dozen additional Punchbowl unknowns. But after 1998, when the Vietnam unknown at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was identified using mitochondrial DNA technology, the initiative to identify the Punchbowl unknowns kicked into high gear.
“JPAC exhumed the first remains in 1999,” says James Rose, a JPAC historian specializing in the Korean War. “There was a hope that with scientific advances in DNA collection, we could exhume the remains and test them for DNA, and we would know who they were. It didn’t work out that way.” At some point the remains had been treated with formaldehyde, which made DNA analysis impossible. A setback, but it didn’t deter JPAC, Rose says.
John Burdick, another JPAC researcher, was developing a new method for identifying remains involving radiographs of young recruits. To enlist in the military during the Korean War, new recruits were X-rayed to check for tuberculosis. Burdick discovered that those radiographs still existed in the National Archives in Washington, though there were plans to destroy them. Instead, Burdick brought them back to Honolulu. “We were fortunate,” Rose says. “Right now we have 72 percent of the X-rays for all unresolved casualties in the Korean War. So we have over six thousand radiographs, and there are just under eight thousand still missing from the Korean War.”
Using these radiographs, JPAC has developed a method of identifying remains by comparing collarbones; clavicles, like fingerprints, are unique to the individual. “Carl Stephan is leading that charge now,” Rose says, referring to another JPAC anthropologist. “Carl’s able to take the radiographs taken in the 1950s, then exhume remains and take another X-ray and compare them.” The technology itself isn’t new, Rose acknowledges, but JPAC has adapted it, as it has other technologies, including one that uses a computer to superimpose photos of MIAs onto the skeletal remains of unknowns.
The drawback to these technologies, Holland says, is that they’re slow and labor-intensive. It would take years, perhaps decades, to manually process the six thousand radiographs from the Korean War to identify the 866 unknowns buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. But Holland seems confident the process can be automated, and it’s only a matter of time before these remains can be speedily identified. The motivation to do so is strong: Out there, the families of thousands of unknowns are waiting.