Last week President Barak Obama proclaimed September 18, 2015, National POW-MIA Recognition day, reinforcing our national commitment to those defenders who never came home. “We rededicate ourselves to our ironclad commitment to never leaving one of our own behind,” the proclamation reads, “and we pay tribute to those patriots known to God and never forgotten.” The quest to locate, identify, and return the remains of our nation’s war dead remains daunting even with the recent reorganization of the agencies responsible for the task and a new policy that utilizes private organizations that have much to offer.
In February 2015 the troubled Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) was merged with the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DMPO) and the Air Force Life Science Equipment Lab into the “Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.” I worked (as volunteer) with JPAC for several years to locate family members to provide DNA reference samples for the 98 American POWs who were massacred on Wake Island in 1943 and have written about the Wake Mission frequently in this blog. (I recently redirected the blog’s old JPAC links to the new agency website at http://www.dpaa.mil.) I was able to find DNA donors for 75 of the 98 victims, but had to suspend 23 cases: 14 of these families were found, but had no qualified donor (or a refusal), and 9 were “dead ends.” The Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab at Dover AFB processes the family reference samples and I continue to forward inquiries to them. Just last week two more potential donors made contact, including one who will be a first donor for his family. To my knowledge no positive identifications have been made yet.
In 2013 JPAC was heavily criticized for failure to recover and identify more remains of the American war dead. Allegations of inefficiency, deception, and dysfunction were compounded by complaints from private groups and individuals that JPAC rejected their offers of research and search help. With 83,000 MIA unaccounted for from WWII and the Korean and Vietnam wars, it would seem like you’d take any help you can get. (About 73,000 MIAs are from WWII alone and many of these are categorized as non-recoverable because they were lost at sea.) As part of the reorganization, the new agency is now working directly with some of these nonprofit organizations on specific cases and sites. Justin Taylan’s Pacific Wrecks, Inc. has been searching Papua New Guinea for WWII airplane wreck sites for years, and is now conducting missions for DPAA. A Florida-based organization, History Flight, recovered the remains of 36 Marines from Tarawa in the Pacific and turned them over to the central lab in Hawaii a couple of months ago. In other cases, archaeological firms and university-based projects have been engaged to aid specific missions and consult on advances in DNA technology.
The search and recovery missions and laboratory work are the focus of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency as it strives for the 200-case target mandated by Congress for fiscal 2015 (reports show they are less than half way there), but another aspect of this mission – and target of past criticism – is interaction with the families. In his proclamation President Obama reiterated the new agency’s commitment to “work to better anticipate family needs and ensure that timely, accurate information is communicated to loved ones. Bringing home Americans who have been taken prisoner or who have gone missing is a sacred mission, and my Administration is increasing our efforts to ensure every service member knows with absolute certainty that — should they ever find themselves in that position — ours is a country that will never give up on retrieving them.”
On September 11-12 we held the annual Wake Island reunion in Boise, Idaho – seventy years after the Wake survivors and thousands of American POWs were liberated from Japanese prison camps. We were honored to have two living survivors travel to the reunion: Leroy Myers of Modesto, CA, and Malcolm “Mick” Johnson of Kearny, AZ. Back in the group’s heyday hundreds of survivors would gather for business and camaraderie; now there are less than twenty known living survivors, all in their 90s and most unable to travel for the event. Still the dozens of family and friends who attend honor the living and the dead – those who have recently passed and those who did not survive the war. Some attendees are the children and relatives of men who died in the defense of Wake or as prisoners of war and they bear a special burden. Some have a grave site they can visit; others wait, like thousands of families, for their loved one to be “brought home.”
After the Wake reunion, Mick Johnson participated in a POW recognition program on September 18 in Arizona. Here’s a link to an interview with an amazing survivor: http://tucson.com/news/local/civilian-warrior-spent-nearly-four-years-as-pow-in-wwii/article_d270a176-edb8-58be-bc0c-857d06d40044.html