A worker removes a container of blood sample cards from the Armed Forces Sample Depot for remains identification at Dover Air Force Base, Del., Jan. 30, 2019 (Dedan Dials / US Air Force)
Twenty-three years ago then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen publicly questioned whether an American fighter would again need to be buried as an unidentifiable “stranger”.
Cohen’s rumination came after DNA tests conclusively identified the remains in the grave of the Unknown Soldier for the Vietnam War as 1st Lt. Michael Blassie, a 24-year-old Air Force aviator who was shot down on May 11, 1972 in South Vietnam.
“Forensic science may have reached a point where there will be no more unknowns in any war,” Cohen told reporters at a Pentagon briefing on June 30, 1998.
“I could be wrong, but it seems to me that given the state of the art today, we are unlikely to have any future unknowns,” he said.
Almost a quarter of a century later, DNA technology has only gotten better, and no American serviceman killed in action in the past 30 years has been buried as unknown.
But could today’s forensic science succeed in the aftermath of a conflict like World War II, a cataclysm from which the remains of around 8,500 American soldiers were recovered but deemed unidentifiable?
Blood sample cards are laid out on a desk at the Armed Forces Sample Depot for identification of remains at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, Jan. 30, 2019 (Dedan Dials / US Air Force)
“Yes and no,” said Josh Hyman, director of the DNA sequencing facility at the University of Wisconsin Biotechnology Center.
“I say yes because the technology is able to give us pretty good details at the genetic level,” he said in a telephone interview on October 28.
Add to that, he said, that the Defense Department keeps blood samples taken from inductees into the military over the past 25 years that can be used for flawless DNA comparisons.
“The reason I’m probably saying no is because in a lot of situations it’s not that you can’t identify something from a bone or a tooth,” he said. declared. “It’s just that – especially during WWII – you had mass graves and things got mixed up. We have a lot of bones in our body. The difficulty then and now is that if you ever have a mass grave, if you ever have a mixture and you have no way of separating them for good to begin with, well, that’s it. just not possible to test every bone. take a decision.
“You try to put things together and do your best. You’ve got to have someone who can look at the physical bones and say, yes those seem to go together, and then you can start testing and testing any number of them.
Misconceptions about DNA
Forensic anthropologist Denise To agrees, touting advances in DNA technology while offering similar caveats.
“One of the common misconceptions is that DNA is the end of all identifications,” said To, who manages the Defense POW / MIA Accounting Agency forensic lab at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. , in a telephone interview on October 27.
“It’s not that simple,” she said. “It’s complex enough that we need multiple sources of evidence to make an identification, such as dental evidence, forensic anthropology, forensic archeology. “
Today’s ability to identify the American war dead stands at the crest of a painful story.
“In Arlington, there are over 4,000 unknown Civil War soldiers,” said Philip Bigler, former historian at Arlington National Cemetery and author of “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: A Century of Honor” published in 2019. .
Fighters in the North and South sometimes wore little identification, often even without a uniform or badge, Bigler said in a telephone interview on October 19.
“If you were killed on the battlefield, you had a good chance of not being identified during the Civil War, just by the nature of the fighting,” he said.
American fighters began wearing metal identification plates during World War I, a practice that became uniform and widespread during World War II when they were nicknamed dog tags.
“But even this system is not particularly foolproof as we have many examples of people holding ID tags in their pockets from fallen individuals or even living individuals,” To said.
In 2009, the lab identified the remains of a WWI soldier who was in possession of identity tags belonging to another soldier who survived the war and lived until 1972, he said. she declared.
Backup of medical records
Thorough medical record keeping, including detailed dental diagrams and x-rays, was maintained on the large number of servicemen during World War II. These documents were invaluable in identifying the unknowns of this war, but they also revealed a weakness in relying on such documentation.
In July 1973, a fire broke out at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, which held millions of official military records spanning the 20th century. The massive fire destroyed the records of around 18 million ex-combatants, including around 80% of army personnel demobilized between 1912 and 1960 and 75% of air force personnel demobilized between 1947 and 1964.
“We’ve learned the lesson that, medico-legal, you want to keep medical records better,” To said.
DNA identification technology appeared in the late 1980s.
In a nutshell, the method compares DNA markers unique to an individual with that of a close relative or descendant. In some cases, it is compared to a database of individuals.
The key to the success of the method is therefore to obtain this comparable sample, but when no parent can be found, the DNA test is of little use.
For example, the DPAA recently concluded a multi-year project to exhume and identify 388 Sailors and Marines buried as unknown from the battleship USS Oklahoma, which was destroyed in the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
The agency identified numerous remains – which had been badly burned and mixed together – through DNA testing. But a handful are expected to be buried again as strangers next month, as in some cases comparative samples of close relatives could not be found.
A game-changing collection
Congress decided to remedy this loophole in 1992 by making the collection of blood samples from new military personnel mandatory. The sole purpose of the collection is to maintain “self-referential” DNA samples that will exactly match those of any military personnel who died on the battlefield.
As of early 2019, the Armed Forces Sample Repository for remains identification at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, held nearly 8 million blood samples taken from inductees in the armed forces over the past 25 years. Cards containing two blood spots are vacuum sealed and stored for 50 years.
“Identifying the deceased with self-reference is superior to identifying the deceased by DNA with a comparative sample to a relative,” To said. “Self-reference is really important to us, and it is a game-changer in terms of ‘identification of the individuals who now die in combat in our wars. “
The samples were used to positively identify more than 800 military personnel who died during Operation Enduring Freedom, the Defense Department said in a 2019 press release.
Yet even DNA science could be hampered by unidentified remains under certain circumstances in future wars.
“For example, right now we can’t really get DNA sequences from badly burnt samples,” To said. “Fire destroys DNA, so there could be some leftovers that have been thermally altered where DNA cannot be extracted. “
Hyman said even severely burned bodies donate DNA samples, especially teeth.
“But it is true that if you incinerate things at certain temperatures, then all you have is ash,” he said. “There is nothing to get. I mean, at that point, there are no more remains, only ashes.