MIA Facts Site

Identifying Unknowns from Korea

Summary.  A little-known fact about the over 8,000 men "missing" from the Korean War is that 864 unknowns are buried in the Punchbowl National Cemetery in Honolulu and these 864 are among the "missing."  Thus, 10 percent of the missing from Korea are actually buried on U. S. soil.  While I was on active duty, the U. S. Army Central Identification Laboratory - Hawaii (CILHI) started a review of records:

bulletOf missing men from Korea,
bulletFrom the Army Graves Registration units in Korea, and
bulletFrom the unknowns interred in the Punchbowl and other national cemeteries.

The review was being done because advances in mtDNA technology had made it possible, under certain circumstances, to identify "ancient" remains -- skeletal remains that are many years old.  Because mtDNA is passed through the maternal line, we thought that we could locate mothers, sisters, maternal aunts or maternal female cousins of missing men from Korea, obtain DNA samples, and possibly eventually use this information to identify missing men from Korea. 

The idea we initially had was to computerize the DNA samples from family members, then, when mtDNA was recovered from a set of remains, the information from that sample would be compared to the samples in the computer.  If the family of the man from whose remains mtDNA had been recovered had a sample in the computer, then, identification would be made.   We also knew that this would be a long process, would require a massive public information campaign to locate families and take samples, and would be expensive.   Another concern was that false hopes would be raised -- What if we took a sample from a family then never recovered the man's remains?

May 21, 1999 Announcement

When I retired, things were still in the planning stage and I do not know what decisions were finally made.  Now, it appears that things are moving.  On May 21, 1999, the Department of Defense made the following announcement:

QUOTE

UNIDENTIFIED REMAINS DISINTERMENT POLICY ESTABLISHED

The Department of Defense today announced a policy to facilitate the use of DNA technology to identify Korean War and World War II remains previously classified as "unknown" and interred in national cemeteries. In 1995, the Department certified the use of mitochondrial DNA technology as a reliable forensic tool, and has improved and refined the use of mtDNA technology since then.

"This is a natural fulfillment of our commitment to the fullest possible accounting of America's missing in action servicemen," said Robert L. Jones, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs. "After our work in identifying the former Vietnam Unknown from the Tomb of the Unknowns, it became clear we could apply the same science to other unknowns, in particular, those buried in the Punchbowl cemetery in Hawaii," he added.

In 1998, the Department identified the Vietnam Unknown as U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Blassie, using mtDNA from the remains and matched sequences with those from his family. He was killed in Vietnam in 1972, classified as an unknown, and interred in the Tomb in 1984.

The cemetery with the greatest number of gravesites containing unknown remains is the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, commonly called the Punchbowl. This cemetery contains 864 remains of unidentified soldiers from the Korean War. Most of these remains were received by the United States at the ceasefire in 1953. Another 204 were turned over by the North Koreans between 1991 and 1994 and are currently in the possession of the Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii.

The records associated with each of the unknown remains in the Punchbowl cemetery will undergo rigorous evaluation before a decision is made to disinter. CILHI will first determine if there is strong circumstantial evidence associating a serviceman's name with a set of remains. Since mitochondrial DNA is expected to be used to identify most of these remains, a comparison blood sample must be obtained from a family member from the serviceman's maternal bloodline. Scientists believe approximately 70 cases may be candidates for disinterment.

The CILHI will direct the disinterment and will seek to identify each of the remains through forensic identification processes, including DNA. This laboratory identified the remains of Blassie in 1998. For the past five years CILHI has applied the science of mtDNA to approximately 45 per cent of its cases.

END QUOTE

The Department of Defense Announcement

If anyone wants to see the original announcement on the Defense Department web site, go to this URL: http://www.defenselink.mil/news/May1999/b05211999_bt250-99.html

Comment on the Announcement

Note some of the details in this announcement:

The records associated with each of the unknown remains in the Punchbowl cemetery will undergo rigorous evaluation before a decision is made to disinter. CILHI will first determine if there is strong circumstantial evidence associating a serviceman's name with a set of remains. Since mitochondrial DNA is expected to be used to identify most of these remains, a comparison blood sample must be obtained from a family member from the serviceman's maternal bloodline. Scientists believe approximately 70 cases may be candidates for disinterment.

What this says, then, is that the CILHI will continue to evaluate the records on each of the unknowns.  If, in these records, there is information that points to an individual, then those remains will be disinterred, the family contacted for a DNA sample, and mtDNA extracted from the remains.  Note the last sentence of this paragraph refers to "approximately 70 cases may be candidates for disinterment."   This tells me that, in the on-going review of records, approximately 70 unknowns have been determined to have information that points to a possible identification.   DoD would not use such a number ( "approximately 70" ) if they did not have some fairly solid information on those 70.

The Korean War "Missing"

Here are some facts about the over 8,000 "missing" from Korea:

bullet2,701 are known to have died in captivity;
bullet864 are buried as unknowns in the Punchbowl National Cemetery
bullet293 were lost at sea;
bullet288 were buried in temporary graves that are now in North Korea;
bulletOver 4,000 were either:
bulletBuried in temporary grave sites for which the records are now under review to determine if recovery is possible, or
bulletBuried as unknown in US National Cemeteries located in Asia, or
bulletKnown to have died and remains were not recovered because of the tactical situation.

Comments from the Peanut Gallery

Nothing in the MIA issue would be complete without comment from the "activists." If you go to the web site of the National Alliance  of Families ( NOT the National League of Families), you will find that since earlier this year the Alliance has been raving about why the Department of Defense does not identify "remains X-656."  the Alliance is claiming that the identity of the unknown buried in "Plot M, Row 5, Grave 1336 at the United States Military Cemetery, Tanggok, Korea" is known.  I know nothing about this case, but, I suspect that the CILHI, in their evaluation of the unknowns' records, has determined that these remains are possibly identifiable.  The Alliance has started distorting the facts, claiming that the Department of Defense does not want to identify X-656.  The fact is, that if X-656 can be identified, the CILHI wants to do it right.

The Facts

In spite of the blather coming from the MIA cult that our missing men have been abandoned, the fact remains: 

The United States is conducting an effort, unprecedented in the history of warfare, to recover and identify our missing men.

This article written on May 22, 1999.