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thedrifter
03-09-08, 11:14 AM
March 9, 2008
Carlson: Decades later, they're bringing heroes home

By John CARLSON
Register Columnist

Honolulu, Hawaii - Each of the tables in the sealed room holds the remains of an American serviceman, killed in action but unidentified.

The table closest to the door is covered with a nearly complete human skeleton, the skull perched upright and whole. A chunk of bone, about the size of a cigarette lighter, has been sliced from the right femur, taken for DNA analysis. A couple of tables away, it's just the top of a head and a jawbone with a few teeth.

Down the hall is another room, the place where the dog tags, coins, trinkets, crinkled pieces of yellowed paper, shreds of uniforms and other artifacts are studied, cataloged and matched with the dead soldiers and Marines.

It's quiet here. Beyond respectful. There's a reverence in this building at Hickam Air Force Base. It is, without question, a place of honor.

"These are from the 208 sets of remains returned in 1993 - ground troops who died in the Chosin Reservoir area in North Korea in 1950," said Dennis Danielson, an anthropologist and archaeologist who grew up in the tiny southeast Iowa town of Grandview. "We're close to identifying these men."

Danielson is standing in the center of the largest forensic anthropology laboratory in the world. The men and women who work here - archaeologists, anthropologists, forensic dentists and support staff - have one mission: To travel the world searching for, returning and eventually identifying America's war dead.

It's a huge job, and it may never be completed. An estimated 78,000 Americans never returned after World War II, about half of them considered still recoverable. Then there are the 8,100 missing from the Korean War, 1,763 from the Vietnam War, 120 from the Cold War and one from the Gulf War.

"This effort is not going to stop," said Air Force Lt. Col. Mark Brown, a Le Mars native who is chief spokesman for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) based here. "These Americans went to war and lost their lives. They are the honored dead, heroes who deserve to come home. Their families deserve to have them home. We leave no fallen American behind."

That's why 425 military and civilian workers at JPAC routinely go to Vietnam, North Korea, Laos, Europe and islands in the Pacific to dig, search and sweat and then spend years working to positively identify every set of remains.

Six missing Iowans are on JPAC's urgent list, meaning there is a high probability that their remains are here and close to being identified. Another 47 Iowans are on a list of those of whom Brown says "there is a chance we have them in our lab." A key for them - and for all those listed as missing - is to locate family members who can provide DNA samples for comparison.

It's how JPAC identified the remains of Dennis Hamilton of Barnes City, Ia., whose helicopter was shot down in Laos in 1968; Clem Boody of Independence, Ia., who was listed as missing in Korea in 1951; and Norman Roggow, who grew up near Peterson and died in Vietnam in 1967. All were identified and returned for burial over the last few months.

"We had a memorial service 40 years ago," said Roggow's younger brother Curtis, who lives in Shawnee, Kan. "We went through the grief and the mourning. Last December, we had the funeral, with full military honors for my brother. You have mixed emotions going through it again. I wouldn't call it closure. I'd call it a completeness. And now I have a gravesite to visit. That means a lot."

Norman Roggow, who was 26 when he was killed, was identified after two of his sisters provided DNA to investigators at JPAC.

"DNA is one piece of the puzzle, but in some cases, it's the last piece of the puzzle that can confirm identification," Brown said.

Investigators here use mitochondrial DNA, the type of DNA inherited only from the mother. Each person's mother, brothers, sisters, sisters' children and other maternal relatives share the same mitochondrial DNA. Relatives of all members of the military who never returned are urged to contact the military or JPAC to determine if they should provide a DNA sample.

Brown, a 54-year-old career Air Force officer and Iowa State University graduate, has firsthand knowledge of how this works. He said he asked his father back in Iowa about a Don Hess, whose name was on a list of missing from World War II.

"I saw the name on our list," Brown said. "It was familiar and I asked my dad. He said that yes, it was his cousin. I told him, 'Dad, I think we found him.' DNA samples were provided by my family. He's been identified."

Getting the samples is difficult, because so many of the missing died so long ago. Family members die or move, and younger relatives often know little of what happened to members of their families.

Of the roughly 1,000 active cases here, 40 percent are Korean War-related, 40 percent are Vietnam War-related and 20 percent are from World War II.

Each set of remains is cataloged and studied for identifying features. Some are here because governments returned them. Most were recovered by field teams that go into remote areas where planes crashed decades ago and ground forces engaged in combat.

"We always go with a plan, having reason to believe we're going to find something in a specific place," said Danielson, a University of Iowa graduate.

"That plan is based on historical documents, military records, maps and, in some cases, eyewitness accounts from military people and local residents. A person might remember seeing some Americans taken to a particular area, then hearing shots and never seeing the Americans again. That would be a place to search. Sometimes it's obvious - we find dog tags with a set of remains, for instance - and that's a great starting point for gathering further information."

JPAC has 18 recovery teams, typically with 10 to 14 members each. They travel to Korean War battle areas at least five times a year, 10 times to Southeast Asia for Vietnam War-related investigations, and 10 times to areas associated with World War II and the Cold War. Missions last from one to two months.

"Sometimes we're successful," Danielson said. "Sometimes we find nothing. But we always come back with information we didn't have before we left."

Recovery teams treat potential excavation areas much like they would a crime scene. They may search just a few square feet of a site - where they believe a serviceman is buried - or an aircraft crash site the size of a football field.

"We often hire local residents to help with the search," said Troy Kitch, a civilian employee at JPAC. "It could be a few. It could be dozens, depending on the terrain and the information we have."

The tiniest bits of remains and artifacts are gathered.

The remains are placed in sealed containers and received with a formal ceremony at the Hawaii air base. They're taken to the Central Identification Laboratory and the identification process begins. About two are identified each week, but the process can take years.

JPAC employs 30 forensic anthropologists, three forensic dentists and nine aircraft wreckage specialists. Dental records compared with human remains in the laboratory can be the most determinative part of the investigation because matches can be exact. That's why the discovery of a jawbone with teeth can positively identify a service member. DNA provides confirmation in about 70 percent of the identifications.

At least one investigative or recovery team is in the field at all times.

This isn't just a job for the people who work here - particularly the 61-year-old Danielson, who has been on 57 excavations around the world in his 14 years at JPAC. He served as an infantryman in the Marine Corps in Vietnam.

"I lost friends there," he said. "Good friends. This is meaningful to me."

And meaningful to the families. Hamilton was recovered by a JPAC team in November 2006. His remains were identified by investigators here and buried by his family last August at Arlington National Cemetery.

"It's amazing what it meant to my family," said Hamilton's sister, Joyce Beyer of Lynnville, Ia. "It was comforting to all of us, and so nice to see the country cares about somebody who has been gone 40 years. We never imagined it could happen."

The skeletons on the tables here are, necessarily, scientific specimens to be examined and probed. Somehow, the artifacts found with them bring even more of a sense of humanity to the process.

Danielson said the artifacts and keepsakes on one table were found at the site of an F-4 fighter jet crash site in Southeast Asia.

"The jet crashed in 1967," he said. "One of the men ejected. The other didn't."

Danielson holds two pennies, a quarter, a dog tag, part of a watchband and a heart-shaped trinket with a loving inscription.

"We're nearly certain of the identification on this man," he said. "Dental records will confirm it. Then the family will be notified."

Then he studies a billfold, a partial dog tag and the pipe, all found with one of the Korean War dead.

"Look closely," he says, holding the bowl of the pipe just so, under the bright lights of JPAC's autopsy room. "There's still tobacco packed inside."

The investigators are close to identifying its owner. Not long after that, there will be a knock on the door of a home somewhere in America and a uniformed officer will inform a family member the identification has been made. A soldier or Marine lost 58 years ago in Korea will come home and be buried with full military honors.

And the men and women at JPAC will keep at their task. The work will continue, they vow, until all are home.

Columnist John Carlson can be reached at (515) 284-8204 or jcarlson@dmreg.com

Ellie