Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ghost Chasers

On April 10th 2009, Army Corporal Samuel C. Harris Jr. of Rogersville, Tennessee was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. He and several others had been reported missing on November 27th, two days after an intense firefight near Hill 222, Korea. He had been listed as missing in action for 58 years. The search for thousands more is ongoing.

Perhaps the most frustrating but occasionally highly rewarding areas of work undertaken by the US Department of Defense (DoD) is the painstaking search for the remains of servicemen who died on foreign soil during World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, Vietnam, and the first Gulf War. Due mostly to the chaos of battle, limited technology, enormous troop movements, shabby records in prisoner of war (POW) camps and the passage of time, the fate and final resting place of more than 84,000 US servicemen remains unknown.

Tragically, many perished in POW camps, killed by Japanese and German captors merely to set an example, others were bayoneted during forced marches, many starved or worked to death in labor camps, and a number were killed during allied attacks on those facilities and operations. Those killed on marches were frequently abandoned when survivors, slowed with the burden of carrying their fallen comrades, were given the option to either die themselves or leave their friends’ remains along the roadways. Those killed in camps were tossed into mass graves and forgotten, and countless more were tortured, underwent gruesome medical experimentation at the hands of their captors, and later joined their brethren in the pits.

The vast majority, however, lay forever where they fell in far off jungles, on islands, or somewhere in Europe as their units pushed into Germany. From World War II alone, more than 74,000 families have been denied the right to know how their loves ones died and where they were buried – if they were even buried at all. They are ghosts, and the vast majority will most likely never be discovered or identified.

The Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) oversees investigations worldwide in the continued search for our nation’s missing men – now all presumed dead. In conjunction with archeological digs, intense interviews, and cutting-edge DNA laboratory testing, the DPMO pieces together biological, geographical, and circumstantial evidence to locate these men. As World War II quickly fades from memory and stateside survivors are dying at a rate of thousands per week, the likelihood of pinpointing the missing is diminishing rapidly. As hopeless as their efforts may appear, however, there have been a few recent encouragements that keep these men and women laboring unwaveringly.

In Vietnam, for example, as those who endured a brutal war on their soil near the ends of their lives, many have stepped forward to clear their consciences – at times confessing that they killed US troops and indicating where they buried the bodies, all with the hopes of absolving their guilt over past actions. Their admissions have proven invaluable to locating a few of the more than 1,000 servicemen still missing from the Vietnam War. Monsoons have come and gone, landslides have buried some gravesites, and many remain missing, but every so often a few more servicemen are identified and finally reunited with their surviving kin.

To lose a loved one in war is devastating enough, but to wonder for years, and perhaps even half-century the fate of a family member is a lingering pain. Though working largely unnoticed, the efforts of the DPMO and other partner organizations are followed closely by men and women eager for any news of their loved ones. They won’t see them again, most likely, but perhaps they can receive closure to years of protracted grief. Progress is understandably slow.

In order to identify with certainty the remains of Army Air Corps Staff Sergeant Jimmie Doyle, who was shot down near Japan, divers with the US Navy Mobile Diving and Salvage Teams conducted three investigative missions down to the wreckage of a submerged aircraft off the southern coast of Babelthuap Island. They resurfaced with machine guns, biological samples, and even old ID materials found on three of the crewmembers within the wreckage. With the assistance of scientists at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratories, serial numbers from the recovered weapons were matched to those that were assigned to the B-24J Liberator bomber known to have been shot down on September 1st, 1944 and mitochondrial DNA was matched to these crewmembers’ surviving kin.

In conjunction with these data, circumstantial evidence and even old dental records, a solid conclusion was reached: after 50 years of searching and five more years of research and legwork, Jimmie Doyle had been located. The Army’s Mortuary Affairs Office soon thereafter contacted his next of kin, and on April 25th 2009, Doyle was buried in his hometown of Lamesa, Texas. The exhaustive search had taken more than half a century, but finally ended solemnly, but positively. Doyle made it home.

Few, if any countries in the world go to such exhaustive lengths to recover their war dead, yet few countries remember her heroes so fondly. Nor do many take so seriously the expression, “leave no man behind.” This nation, recognizing the sacrifice of these men, hunts for them willingly and tirelessly. These men gave us everything, so the least we can offer them is peace. They are gone, indeed, but never forgotten. We are a nation who remembers, for the nation itself was purchased at immeasurably high cost. We chase ghosts.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw All Rights Reserved


  1. Please remind everybody that this story represents the true meaning of Memorial Day.

    Not the mall sales, cookouts, celebrations?!, and parties.


  2. Wonderful piece of work. Excellent documentation. Change "off" to "of" end of third paragraph "hands of their captors."