Issue 14.6: Dec. 2011 / Jan. 2012

Unknown No More

Story by Dawn Southard

Photos by Matt Mallams


During a routine bombing mission on February 8, 1969, US Air Force pilot Capt. Thomas E. Clark came under heavy enemy fire. His F-100D Super Sabre went down on a remote, densely forested mountainside in Savannakhet Province, southern Laos. The pilots of other American aircraft reported seeing no parachute or other indication that Capt. Clark survived, and his name was added to the long list of Vietnam War MIA—missing in action.


Twenty-three years later, in 1992, an expedition of the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting reached the jungle crash site. They retrieved enough material to identify the aircraft as the one Clark flew but found no remains. Maj. Clark (he had been promoted while MIA) was declared KIA—killed in action. But for his family, there was still no closure.


Thirteen years passed before a second team, this one from the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, or JPAC, revisited the crash site in November 2005 to search for the missing pilot. A team of anthropologists, soldiers and Laotian laborers methodically removed soil and hauled it bucket by bucket to a screening station; they would eventually sift through more than eighty tons of soil. It was hard, sweaty work, and success was not assured: Jungle soil is highly acidic, and not even human bones last long. But on November 16, midway through the thirty-day mission, they found the crown of a human tooth.


After more than forty years of crash site experience, JPAC has developed sophisticated search models that justify returning to old crash sites like this one—which is why, nearly four decades after Capt. Clark’s crash, anthropologists were able to find a tooth. And JPAC has been developing new methods of analyzing biological clues that make it possible to close a case by examining something so small as a fragment of enamel.


To solve the mystery of whether the tooth belonged to Capt. Clark, the team had to bring it back to Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu, home to one of the world’s largest and most cutting-edge forensic laboratories. Even then, the mystery would take five more years to solve.


JPAC, which represents all the armed services, has an ambitious mission: “to achieve the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of the nation’s past conflicts.” Counting WWII, Korea, the Cold War and Vietnam, that’s more than 88,000 MIA and “unknowns”—soldiers whose remains have been recovered yet remain unidentified. At any given time JPAC has as many as a thousand open cases. On average, it identifies one MIA or unknown every four days. Together with its predecessor organizations—the Army Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii and the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting—JPAC has identified the remains of more than 1,800 Americans. And the pace is accelerating.


JPAC’s work requires the expertise of dozens of specialists. Its recovery teams, like the one that visited the crash site in Laos, travel the world searching for the remains of America’s MIAs. These teams are composed of field archaeologists, aircraft life support experts, forensic photographers and others. A typical recovery mission lasts one to two months and is usually in a difficult-to-reach location. Excavated material is meticulously labeled, cataloged and packaged for return to the Central Identification Lab at Hickam.


Behind a glass wall at CIL, some thirty forensic anthropologists analyze the skeletal remains of unknowns spread on workbenches. Some are nearly complete; others consist of a single fragment. Nevertheless, CIL scientists use what they have to identify the unknown’s race, height, sex, age and distinguishing anomalies, such as signs of bones broken in childhood or indications of disease. They also frequently extract DNA samples. Still other analysts scrutinize the material gathered by the recovery team, looking for clues to correlate with the remains.


CIL Director Thomas Holland, a civilian anthropologist who has supervised crash and recovery sites and conducted skeletal analyses, explains the nuances of the work. “Many of the excavations we do are aircraft wrecks,” he says. “But we’re not generally interested in the wreckage; we’re interested in recovering the remains from the wreckage. The parts of the wreckage that we are interested in are those fragments that might identify the airplane or identify the time period when the plane was flying. We’re also interested in those fragments that will tell us whether or not somebody was on the aircraft at the time that it impacted, or whether it was a survivable crash.” The critical questions, Holland says, are: “Can you put a specific person in a specific aircraft at a specific time, and was it survivable? If a plane crashes and the impact is not sufficient to kill the crewman, then you have to deal with the fact that somebody could have walked away.”


Which is why JPAC recovery teams include aircraft experts. “They might say a certain bolt is from a Mach-5 ejection seat, and if we know that seat was at the crash site, we know that the crewman was on board the aircraft at the time of impact,” Holland says.


All of these determinations are, of course, complicated by the passage of time. “The problem that we face is we’re literally trying to pick up the pieces of individuals that were lost fifty, sixty, seventy years ago.” That and the remote, inhospitable locations of these crash sites make some of JPAC’s identifications seem nearly miraculous. That’s certainly true for the case of Maj. Clark.


Odontologists identify remains by comparing teeth with dental records, but when the remains are too fragmentary or a soldier didn’t have dental records, identification is harder. “In this instance,” Holland says, “the dentist could only tell us it was a human tooth fragment.”


To learn more, JPAC turned to technology. “We zapped the enamel with a laser,” says Holland. “That vaporized a microthin layer of the enamel, but it was enough that we could then read the types of atomic isotopes making up that enamel.” Oxygen isotopes vary around the world; oxygen atoms in the United States are different from those in Southeast Asia. These isotopes, which occur mainly in water, get taken up in the diet, eventually finding their way into the crowns of our teeth. “One of the interesting things about the crowns of your teeth,” Holland says, “is they stop forming by the age of 14. That means any oxygen isotopes that you ate or drank in the first fourteen years of your life are forever locked in the enamel of your teeth. So when we examined the enamel from this recovery and looked at the oxygen isotopes that were present, it indicated that this was someone who had spent the first decade of their life in the United States, not Southeast Asia. Now we can say it’s not only a human tooth, but a Western tooth.”


It was that arcane data, along with all the other circumstantial evidence, that allowed JPAC, five years after discovering the tooth fragment, to ID Maj. Clark—though in the absence of DNA, it’s actually the families who look at the total evidence and decide whether there’s enough to make the ID.


But when there is DNA, an incontrovertible identification is more likely. DNA analysis has become the most powerful tool in JPAC’s arsenal; nearly 70 percent of identifications today are confirmed by DNA, and thousands of MIA families have supplied JPAC with samples for comparison. The method isn’t without challenges. In some cases not enough biological material can be recovered for DNA analysis. In other cases it’s difficult to find samples for comparison. “We had a case from Vietnam,” Holland says, “where we thought we knew who the guy was, but we needed DNA to confirm it. When we went to the family to get a sample for DNA testing, though, we discovered that he had been adopted at birth. There were no records of his biological parents, nobody to get a DNA sample from. So we sat down with his widow and brainstormed. She produced a scrapbook that her mother-inlaw—the adopting mother—had given her. In the scrapbook was an envelope labeled ‘Roger’s first haircut, 1927.’ It had a lock of his baby hair, and we got DNA from his baby hair and identified him.”


JPAC’s willingness to go to such lengths has an impact on MIA families, and its bond with those families is genuine. This May, for example, JPAC identified Carol Sumner’s husband forty-five years after he was classified MIA. They notified Sumner personally and invited her and her family to CIL to explain the identification process. Prior to the identification, during the years of waiting, JPAC has periodically invited Sumner and the families of other unknowns in to discuss their cases. “I think JPAC is the most wonderful organization in the world,” says Sumner. “Everybody was so outstanding, so thoughtful, so caring.” After her visit in May, she sent 410 thank-you notes to the lab—one for every member of the staff.


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.