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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: Field Marketing Manage

£25k - 40k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineers

£28000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineer...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineers

£28000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineer...

Opilio Recruitment: Product Development Manager

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas