Accuracy questioned in JPAC identification of WWII remains from Philippines
As the Defense Department attempts to identify World War II remains exhumed in the Philippines in August, questions have surfaced about the identification years ago of four sets of remains that were returned to families and buried.
The revelations are the latest in the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command saga to identify 14 servicemembers and Navy employees who died at the hands of Japanese captors on Nov. 19, 1942, at the Cabanatuan prisoner of war camp in Luzon and were buried in communal grave 717.
After the war, remains of four of the men in that grave were allegedly identified and sent home to their families. What were thought to be the remains of 10 others were moved to the Manila American Cemetery and buried as unknowns.
Following a lawsuit by one of the families of the unknown men, their remains were exhumed and samples sent to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory for DNA testing.
Documents obtained by Stars and Stripes show that in the last five years, three accounting officials believed that the four identifications made after the war were incorrect, which would hamper current attempts to identify the others.
Documents released last month in district court in Texas revealed that the remains of 11 people were found in the 10 exhumed caskets, and that accounting personnel are unable to provide “reportable results” on all of the samples sent to AFDIL although testing is ongoing.
AFDIL’s mitochondrial DNA testing — using DNA from maternal lineage — “supports the indication of a minimum of 11 individuals in the assemblage,” according to a status report obtained by Stars and Stripes.
Of the 149 bone and teeth samples, DNA had been extracted from them all “at least once and, when possible, two or more times,” the report said. Yet of the 10 samples provided to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory by the JPAC laboratory, four did not yield solid results.
“The remaining four samples of the original 10 have been extracted multiple times and have been determined to be not reportable at this time,” the report said. Families of the missing believe that the unreportable results could be attributed to incorrect IDs made after the war.
Officials from the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office declined to comment due to the ongoing litigation.
The report also states that the agencies do not have all of the family reference samples to make the identifications, and that nuclear DNA inherited from both parents, which has been heralded as a superior testing method by experts, has not been used.
The disclosures of extra body parts and shaky identifications leave the Defense Department’s accounting agencies in a quandary. Will they repatriate the extra portion of remains with its already “identified” buried owner or dispose of it?
After the war, it had been standard practice to bury portions of remains in caskets marked as unknowns, even in cases where evidence pointed to an already identified and buried owner. In recent years, extra portions were cremated and disposed of in a landfill. However, that practice was stopped after public backlash; portions of remains are now cremated and buried at sea.
It is unknown whether there are plans to exhume the four sets of already identified remains, but the move has been recommended by accounting personnel.
“The previous 4 identifications may have been premature,” anthropologist Debra Prince Zinni wrote to Tom Holland, Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command scientific director and deputy to the commander for Central Identification Laboratory operations, in an Oct. 19, 2011 memo. Family reference samples for the four identified cases “must also be collected prior to disinterment.”
The Zinni memo followed a similar one a year earlier by Heather Harris that cast a shadow on the identifications.
◾ The remains turned over to the family of Pfc. Daniel Bain were done so primarily because of an ID tag, which is often unreliable.
◾ Pfc. Juan Gutierrez was identified by two officers from the Dental Corps even though “no dental forms were available for comparison,” Harris wrote citing his 1946 “Report of Interment.”
◾Sgt. Lawrence Hanscom was identified based on the comparison of multiple dental extractions and restorations. However, the memo states that matching up the charts was a challenge because problematic teeth were often pulled during imprisonment and malnutrition the men experienced caused tooth loss. No height, age or race could be determined for comparison.
◾ The remains identified as Pfc. Harvey Nichols showed a restoration in the teeth where none was listed in his records. “More troubling is the lack of restorations on teeth shown to have restorations present in PFC Nichols’ records,” Harris wrote. The remains were also estimated to be four or five inches shorter than Nichols, Harris wrote.
“The possibility that the resolved casualties were misidentified cannot be excluded,” said former JPAC investigator Rick Stone, quoting a report he drafted on the four sets of remains on behalf of JPAC’s deputy to the commander for external relations and legislative affairs Johnie Webb.
Stone declined to provide copies to Stars and Stripes because they were labeled “for official use only.”
John Eakin, cousin of one of the unknowns, filed suit against the government demanding a timely identification on behalf of the Kelder family. Pvt. Arthur “Bud” Kelder is one of 73,652 servicemembers unaccounted for from the war. His family believes Kelder was one of the more than 8,500 American servicemembers from World War II buried as an unknown in American cemeteries around the world. He, other families and JPAC whistleblowers believe that more can be done to identify remains, but claim the defense accounting agencies have refused.
Eakin said he understood why JPAC was reluctant to exhume the remains and attempt to make the IDs. Identifications from previous conflicts, before DNA testing, could become suspect.
“It confirms the research memos and investigative reports” that the IDs made after the war were incorrect, he said.
Eakin fears the accounting agencies will refrain from disturbing the four families of the previously identified remains and will instead dispose of the 11th set of remains and place the four unreportable cases back into unknown graves.
“They’ll send them back to Manila and bury them again,” Eakin said. “I hate to think the worst of anyone but these people have demonstrated no regard for the truth.”
Despite the questionable identifications, Zinni believes the remains could be identified using modern technology.
“Although the remains are described as eroded and lacking identifiable characteristics, advances in technology ... may help in identification of remains from Common Grave 717,” she wrote.