JPAC Mission: Wake 98

North beach Wake Among its many challenging missions worldwide, the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command (now Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency effective 1/1/2015) continues to pursue the Wake Island project: to identify remains that were found on Wake in 2011. It has been two years since the discovery on the north beach of Wake in a location near the generally-accepted site of the massacre of the American contractors on October 7, 1943. JPAC’s team of forensic anthropologists traveled to Wake to excavate the site, recover the remains, and bring them to the JPAC Central Identification Laboratory on Oahu for study.

The JPAC mission is to seek, recover, and identify the unaccounted-for personnel still missing from our nation’s conflicts. The number is a staggering 83,000, but JPAC steadily chips away at it. According to the JPAC website, the Central Lab identifies an average of six Americans per month, a process that often takes years to accomplish. The appropriate service mortuary affairs office notifies next-of-kin family members. It is a long and difficult road, but JPAC’s motto underscores its mission: “Until They Are Home.”

We are honored that JPAC includes the WWII civilian POWs of Wake Island in their mission. Indeed, many of the civilian contractors volunteered to aid the Marine-led defense of Wake and to provide vital support services in December 1941. The Wake civilian survivors were awarded honorable discharges (from the U. S. Navy) and veterans’ benefits in 1981, and many received recognition and medals for their service in the defense of Wake. A number of those who died on Wake in battle and among the 98 were posthumously honored for their service.

A total of 194 men (civilian and military) died on Wake Island in World War II. During the siege and battle for Wake in December 1941, 92 died, including 34 civilian contractors and 10 Guamanian employees of Pan American Airways and 48 military personnel (45 Marines, 3 Navy). Four civilians died in early 1942 (two of these did not actually die on Wake but at sea in an escape attempt), and 98 civilians died in 1943. After the war, U. S. Army graves registration units came to Wake to disinter the known graves and bring the remains to Oahu for study and eventual internment in Punchbowl cemetery. Two mass graves (one from mid-December 1941 and the other a hastily dug repository for what some sources say was approximately 72 of the 98 massacred by the Japanese), the lone individual grave of carpenter Will Miles who died in July 1942, and a south beach grave of sixteen or so who valiantly gave their lives in defense of their position on December 23, 1941 (including Medal of Honor recipient, Henry Elrod), were exhumed, but locations of other burials were unknown. The majority are buried in a stark, beautiful setting in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific under a plaque listing 178 names (131 civilian, 47 military).

In addition, over a thousand Japanese had perished on Wake from starvation, disease, and the impact of unrelenting bombings by U. S. forces. The Japanese remains were buried in numerous locations, most repatriated, but bones have continued to surface through the years and most are properly vetted through the authorities. They, too, are honored for their sacrifice.

Early in the JPAC mission, I offered to help locate family members of the American dead on Wake Island in order to secure DNA samples to help identify the recently found remains. Based on the location of the remains, the JPAC focus has focused on the group massacred in 1943, 96 of whom were initially buried on the north beach. JPAC made the determination that these remains are Caucasian, not Asian. As numbers go, 98 are not as many as 83,000, but the mountain is still awfully steep. In two years – granted, it has not been my full-time pursuit – I have managed to locate 26 families to submit DNA samples (and as far as I know, JPAC quickly located two in Hawaii), but there are many families yet to be found.

The optimal FRS (Family Reference Sample) source for DNA is mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is inherited from the mother, and about two-thirds of JPAC’s successful identifications are based on it. JPAC says that while it doesn’t uniquely identify an individual, mtDNA is a powerful tool to connect the DNA of family relations: mtDNA is “long-lasting, abundant, and doesn’t change much from generation to generation.” However, when seeking families of men who died seventy years ago, mt is a tough row to hoe. This most valuable type of DNA tracks from mother to her offspring, including the deceased. Any living siblings of the victim are candidates. After that generation, mtDNA passes through the female siblings only, to their children, male or female, and so on through the generations: each female descendant passes the mtDNA on and, remarkably, it doesn’t “dilute” over time. The original mother’s birth family members may also qualify.

Several families that I contacted were simply unable to provide an mtDNA donor because no kin qualified. I contacted JPAC recently about this conundrum and was told that in the case where no mtDNA is possible, they will gladly accept nuclear and/or Y-chromosome DNA samples (i.e. immediate family, including offspring, of the deceased, and direct male-line family members). I’m glad to reopen the door for these families.

Please contact me if you know of any family members of the Wake 98 or the American civilians who died on Wake Island earlier in WWII.

“Until They Are Home.”