Missing Personnel Office: No one left behind

A crack US armed forces unit employs experts in everything from genealogy to archaeology to recover lost soldiers’ remains. Phil Boucher explores their world

On the morning of 19 February 2011 hospital administrator Charmaine Lake Wade looked on as a coffin draped in the US flag slowly meandered past the headstones of Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, Texas, drawn by a pair of immaculately groomed black horses. It was to be a funeral conducted with full military honours, complete with a rifle salute, US Army honour guard and a contingent of flag-carrying bikers from the Patriot Guard Riders, who attend the funeral of every US service person killed in action.

Yet Charmaine was not there to pay her respects to someone killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Instead, the coffin bore the remains of her father, Second Lieutenant Edward J Lake of the US Army Air Force, a man she had never met or spoken to – and who had disappeared when Charmaine was just three months old, on 27 October 1943

"When I put my hand on his casket it was the closest I had been to him in my entire life," explains Charmaine, 67.

But this conjunction was no accident. Five years earlier, on 7 April, 2006, Charmaine had been preparing to attend a routine medical appointment in Corpus Christi, Texas, when she received a telephone a call from a little- known US military department called the Defence Prisoner of War/ Missing Personnel Office (DPMO). On the other end of the line was a genealogist who informed Charmaine that the remains of her father may have been discovered on the side of a remote mountain in Papua New Guinea, and that in order to prove this conclusively they would need a DNA sample from one of his living relatives.

"I was dumbfounded. Just in a state of shock," says Charmaine.

Luckily, Lt Lake's younger sister Elsa Loth, now 88, was still residing in his hometown of New York, so a scientific team was dispatched from Washington. With Elsa's DNA sample, the DPMO team could continue an investigation that had started in August 2003 – some three years before Charmaine was contacted.

The first evidence of Lt Lake's remains had emerged when villager Duncania Jawa stumbled upon aircraft wreckage near Bainburg village in the remote Morobe Province of Papua New Guinea. At the same time Jawa turned over a US Army Air Force identification card that belonged to First Lieutenant Jack E Volz, the pilot of a B-24 Liberator nicknamed "Sharkrat" that had disappeared in heavy fog during a reconnaissance mission in the Second World War. Numbered among the crew that day was Charmaine's dad, Lt Lake.

Despite an exhaustive search in the days after its disappearance, no sign of Sharkrat was found, so Lake and his 11 comrades were assumed to have ditched into the Pacific. A year and a day after their disappearance, on 28 October, 1944, all 12 were declared dead.

"Everyone assumed that his plane went down in the ocean and my mother had written letters for a couple of years to the army about it," adds Charmaine. "They just said the plane had disappeared over the ocean and that was it – there was nothing more they could do."

Thanks to Duncania Jawa this was about to change. The new information was quickly fed up to the DPMO which, together with the Hawaii-based Joint Prisoner of War/Missing In Action Command (JPAC), spends $106 million a year scouring the world for the remains of the 88,000 Americans missing from the Second World War, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the 1991 Gulf War. It is a vast, 365-day-a-year effort involving a team of 600 specialists in everything from forensic anthropology to linguistics, bomb disposal, logistics, archaeology and satellite communications.

Their mission is to simply live up to the promise made to US recruits the moment they sign on the dotted line, "No One Left Behind".

"The government made a pact with the service members that they would bring them back no matter what," explains JPAC forensic anthropologist Sean Tallman. "So we owe it to them to do all we can to fulfil that promise – wherever they deploy."

This commitment takes JPAC teams to the farthest flung corners of South East Asia, Europe and the Gulf to scour aircraft crash sites and other newly discovered war graves with toothbrushes and trowels for anything that might identify the service people involved, whether it be a coat button, name tag or wedding ring. The primary goal is to discover human remains so a bone sample can be sent to a Department of Defence laboratory for mitochondrial DNA sequencing. This, coupled with the circumstantial evidence sourced from the ground site, can prove conclusively the final whereabouts of a missing service person.

The sites are often on jungle hillsides covered in trees and vegetation, or rocky outcrops where the teams have to delicately move boulders. "It's just about every environment you can image – including rice paddies, which presents a unique challenge because you have to try to drain the water out with pumps or dig moats," explains Tallman. "Often this is impossible so you just have to dig it in its mucky state.

"Sometimes when you first arrive on the scene it's not very obvious that it is even a crash site, because the larger pieces of wreckage have been scavenged by local groups for their own use. Some of these planes were obviously travelling quite fast, so we may just have small pieces of wreckage spread over a wide area. Then with leaf litter and the build up of earth, the scene gradually becomes more overgrown and more difficult to process."

In Lt Lake's case all of these factors conspired, with the crash site being located high on a steep, rocky mountainside that's prone to sudden landslides and only realistically accessible by helicopter. Between 2004 and 2005 JPAC mounted three expeditions to the area, where they painstakingly pinpointed the remains of the 12 crew members scattered among the debris. Back in Washington the DPMO was faced with an equally testing challenge: locating the relatives.

"Just trying to find the family may itself be complicated, because in the ensuing 70 years they could be scattered to the winds and not located anywhere near where the WW2 records say," explains the DPMO's Larry Greer. "Yet it is critically important to do this when the scientists have made an identification."

It was at this point in the investigation that Charmaine was contacted by a genealogist, who had traced her family from New York to Texas. JPAC scientists then moved on to the next stage of the investigation by checking Aunt Elsa's DNA with that found in Papua New Guinea.

Yet this was by no means the end of the inquiry, as a thorough process of checking and rechecking the archaeological and scientific analysis followed. A fourth team also returned to the crash site in 2007 to draw out any last remaining shreds of evidence.

Five years after she was initially contacted, in December 2010, that the government was able to confirm the validity of the remains to Charmaine with the words, "We have positively identified your father".

"It was just an enormous relief as I had been waiting for this news since 2005," says Charmaine, who's going to attend a service at Arlington in May, at which the entire Sharkrat crew will be remembered on a single headstone.

"I have had his picture hanging on my wall with his Purple Heart since I was a kid, so he has always been a part of me. I always kept his name too. But it is nice to know what happened. To at least know he didn't suffer – that he wasn't floating around the ocean or anything like that.

"I am just so thrilled that he finally came home to American soil."

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