At a picturesque national cemetery inside a volcanic crater above Honolulu, crews with shovels and backhoes are digging up hundreds of long-nameless U.S. dead from the Korean War and turning them over to a nearby Pentagon lab for identification.
The massive disinterment project is giving hope to thousands of aging family members that they may finally know what happened to missing fathers, brothers, husbands, and uncles.
“This one is very big because you have such a large number of men who will finally get their identities back,” said Rick Downes, the leader of the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs. “They have been hanging around in paradise, if you will, for six decades.”
The plan is to disinter more than 650 sets of remains, which represents nearly 10 percent of those still missing from the war.
The massive project signals a change in the very meaning of what it means to be a U.S. “unknown.” That term has long carried a sense of honor, but also a tinge of hopelessness. In recent years, the military ID lab in Hawaii and the Pentagon’s sophisticated DNA lab in Delaware have had increasing success identifying World War II and Korean unknowns who had been buried 60 years or more.
The lab has identified more than 75 percent of the Korean War remains that were exhumed between 1999 and 2016 and have been in the lab for more than two years, according to John Byrd, the lab’s top scientist. The success rate tops 90 percent among remains that have been in the lab for six years or more.
“So if we have enough time to work through the technological challenges in the laboratory, we would do very well,” Byrd said.
Slow but successful
Byrd’s lab is part of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), the Pentagon agency that oversees the recovery and identification of missing troops back to World War II.
Its success with smaller exhumation efforts — and scientific advances in recent years — paved the way for the DPAA to get approvals for the big Korean project.
But it also took steady pressure from the families of the missing.
It had been frustrating to the families to have hundreds of sets of remains buried for decades, by coincidence, just a few miles from the identification lab, Downes said.
“As modern science advanced, and DNA became possible maybe four or five years ago, we started saying, ‘Look, there’s guys down there, can you use the newest DNA technology to try to identify them?'” he said.
Initially, the answer was no, at least for most of the unknowns, in part because the initial attempts at using DNA to make identifications were unsuccessful. That, Downes said, was perhaps understandable.
After the war, U.S. troop remains handed over by the governments of both Koreas were taken to a mortuary in Japan, where they were treated with chemicals including formaldehyde. They broke down the DNA, making it unusable for identifications — at least until recently.
The military’s DNA lab in Delaware developed a new technique. It’s slower than more traditional methods and requires expensive machinery, but it often works.
Other methods used by forensic experts at the identification lab in Hawaii are now regarded as so good that they can make tricky identifications even without DNA evidence.
But DNA evidence is still critical, and not just to the new unknowns project. A spokeswoman for the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, which runs the DNA lab in Delaware, said that of the 203 identifications that the DPAA made in fiscal 2018 of missing troops from various wars, 93 percent used DNA to support the conclusion.
For current conflicts, the Medical Examiner System has already made U.S. unknowns all but impossible: It keeps a collection of DNA samples for all active duty, reserve, and National Guard troops. There are samples for nearly 8 million now, and about 225,000 new ones are added each year.
“We’re racing time”
Now the DPAA is doing about 200 disinterments annually, up from fewer than five a decade ago, Byrd said. Those have included many unknowns killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“If we can just work with the cemeteries not to disrupt their operations too badly, then disinterments are easy in terms of getting remains into the library laboratory to be identified,” Byrd said. “But in the lab, they can be challenging.”
The agency is still doing field recoveries and identifying remains from other wars, but it has added staff and lab space to handle the increase in Korea cases. The Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab in Delaware — which does DNA analysis for the entire federal government — also has added staff and equipment required for the more elaborate analysis. It’s the only lab in the country that’s able to do DNA analysis at that level.
Before the exhumations could start, the military also had to work out a plan with the VA, which operates the cemetery and provides crews to do the digging. The VA, the forensics lab, and the DNA lab all have limited resources.
The DPAA is starting by bringing out eight sets of remains every two weeks. The digging takes place early on Sundays, before many visitors arrive at the cemetery. The next morning, crews lift out the steel caskets, and military honor guards ceremonially escort them to trucks for the short trip to the lab.
The lab scientists monitor and document every step, but everyone moves quickly, from the cemetery crews to the soldiers who move the rusting steel caskets to the lab and cut them open with power saws, to the forensic anthropologists who unwrap, clean, and sort the remains.
The speed is necessary, given the sheer number of dead they’re dealing with. But there’s another reason that people involved with the process feel a sense of urgency: close family members of the Korea-era veterans are growing old.
“That whole generation, we’ve been losing them right and left,” Downes said. “These are the people who knew these men first-hand; they were the sisters, the wives, the cousins at the time.”
Downes was a toddler when his father’s B-26 bomber went missing over North Korea. His own mother died just months ago.
“Very few who were children, like myself, really have memories of our dads, or uncles, so we kind of over the years put together this persona that we call dad or uncle,” he said. “And we’re racing time to a certain extent of my generation, too.”
After decades of mystery, families find hope
The scientists in the lab say they’re well aware of the ticking clock.
Within days of the project’s first eight unknowns being exhumed, the lab had already identified two without DNA testing. Identification was unusually easy for the first man because the remains included a rare extra bone, a small rib on a vertebra in the neck which matched the man’s military chest x-ray. Those x-rays of thousands of Korean War service members had been believed lost, but were found recently in an archive.
For matching DNA, the military has a library of samples painstakingly gathered from 92 percent of the families of the missing.
All of this means newfound hope for the families of the nearly 8,000 Americans still missing from the Korean War.
Of the remains that are now being exhumed, hundreds were returned shortly after the war by the North Korean government. They were accompanied by records that supposedly contained the names of the dead, but those later proved to be unreliable.
One name on the list was Cpl. Kenneth F. Reese, a young cotton mill worker turned artilleryman from Belmont, N.C. A historian at the lab said the odds are low that his remains are among those being exhumed, but perhaps slightly more likely because his name appeared on one of the manifests.
He disappeared in North Korea just before Christmas 1950. But nearly seven decades later, there are still family members who care.
“I was 16, he was 19 when we got married, and we only lived together a week,” said his widow, Christine Porter. “They took him, and I never saw him again.”
Porter said she held out hope for years after he disappeared that he was still alive. She no longer believes that, but said it would still be a relief to have certainty about his fate. She is 86 years old now, has diabetes and chronic lung disease, and has to use an oxygen tank.
“It would mean there would be closure, I’d know what happened, whatever happened,” she said. “Because as long as I didn’t know, I could think whatever I wanted to think, that he was alive somewhere and maybe be home or whatever.”
Despite only being together for a week of marriage, the couple has a daughter. Shelia Reese was two months old when her father went missing.
Reese said that for her mother’s sake, it would be nice if her father’s remains were identified soon. But she has mixed emotions about what it would mean for her.
“They told that I may never know before I die what happened,” she said, choking with emotion. “You’re just getting older — I’m 67 — I’ve never met the man, never seen him … I have no memories of him except what’s handed down to me. I’ve never seen him laugh, or snuggled, or play his guitar, nothing.”
It’s far from certain that Kenneth Reese’s remains are among those buried in Hawaii. The puzzling presence of his name in the North Korean records, though, suggests there’s reason for his wife and daughter to be at least slightly more hopeful.