At a modern laboratory in the sun-washed serenity of Hawaii, lost American servicemen from some of the most brutal and difficult wars of the past century are finally coming home. Their bones, helmets and personal items are laid out on examining tables, where scientists try to figure out who they are so their remains can be returned to their families for proper burial, decades after they died.
Senior advisor Johnie Webb leads a tour of the laboratory dedicated to identifying remains that come in from all over the world. "This is the primary laboratory floor, where most of the analysis takes place by the scientific staff. All the cases you see out on the laboratory floor, those are active cases that are undergoing identification. The scientists are doing the analysis, actually creating a profile that they can then compare against the records of the individuals that were lost," he said.
It is often a slow and difficult process. Dr. Robert Mann, the center's deputy scientific director, discusses one case displayed on a laboratory table. "Just looking at that we would know that is a ground loss because of the absence of breakage of those bones. You would not see that, you would have a lot of broken bones if it is an air crash. You would expect no broken bones like that, maybe a gunshot wound, if it is a ground loss," he said.
Doctors sometimes have to re-assemble skeletons from small bits of bone, and use dental records and DNA analysis to try to figure out whose remains they have. When they're lucky, the analysts might also have some personal items or the serial number from a part on a gun or an airplane to help narrow the search.
There are 1,800 Americans missing from the Vietnam war, and more than eight thousand from the Korean War. Tens of thousands more are missing from World War II and other conflicts.
Most of the remains that come to this lab are from North Korea or Southeast Asia, but some come from World War II battle sites in Europe and the Pacific. This month, the center identified the remains of nine servicemen who died in the crash of a U.S. bomber in New Guinea in 1942. And one team of scientists is working on two sets of remains from a military ship that sank during the American Civil War, nearly 150 years ago.
Last year, the U.S. military suspended the search for remains in North Korea because of security concerns. But the search continues in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and sometimes elsewhere. The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral William Fallon, visited one site in Laos last week. "It is not an easy task. The site that we went to visit was on the side of a mountain. In the intervening years it had been completely covered with the jungle. It took a hundred people three days to hack out the undergrowth to be able to expose the bare earth. But once they did the teams went to work and they sifted through and they showed me several buckets worth of things that they think are going to be very useful in helping to identify remains," he said.
It is a difficult and expensive effort in a very remote location, made worse, the admiral says, by torrential rains and a large population of flying insects.
But the senior advisor to the general in charge of the search for the missing, Johnie Webb, who has been involved in the search for the missing off and on since 1975, says it is well worth the effort. "A family sent a young man off to war and he never came home. But nobody every told them what happened to him. He just disappeared. They have lived with the uncertainty for so many years, with questions of, 'Was he a prisoner?' 'Did he suffer?' And so I think we owe it to the family," he said.
Even with the search for the missing proceeding fairly well in Southeast Asia, the local governments put some restrictions on the movements and working hours of the teams that make the process slower than it needs to be. The governments also charge high rates for access and labor, but U.S. officials say the profit the governments make at least provides an incentive for them to allow the work to continue.
During his visit to the region, Admiral Fallon received assurances from officials in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia that they will allow the searches to continue. "We are doing well. And I have high confidence that if it is at all possible to find these remains to be able to repatriate the missing, they are going to do it," he said.
Admiral Fallon is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and he lost many friends in some of the same areas where the search for the missing continues.