- Historic Sites
A search begun in a Washington, D.C., boardinghouse 140 years ago continues today as a $100-million-a-year effort to reunite the U.S. military and American families with their missing soldiers
February/March 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 1
To Goodman, a forensic anthropologist who wears a red MIA bracelet for a soldier named Charles Wallace (1967), trying to find a missing combatant requires as much archeology as detective work. He begins by reconstructing a battle. Burnt ammunition suggests where units were fighting and, if they were an “air loss,” whether or not they were potentially found by the enemy, whether they ejected from a seat mid-flight or died from the blast. If unspent casings are found, it can be assumed the soldier was killed on impact. If not, he may have died fighting. “We know the chopper burned and where it went down,” Goodman says, “so we don’t need to document every piece of burnt ammunition or metal.” Unlike regular archeology, which seeks to find and preserve every single item found, a dig like this ranks material evidence. Not every piece of poncho plastic or scorched metal has to be saved; only those materials that can aid in the identification.
After days and weeks of sifting dirt with few findings, the team drags. Monotony is the enemy here. Fog rolls in every afternoon before the rains. Cries of locusts and birds fill the jungle nightly to create an otherworldly surround-sound. A fine mist hangs in the air after the rain. Charcoal deposits and scorch marks on the rocks have oxidized, leaving red and gray streaks, the unification of machine and megacosm.
The A Shau Valley is a mean, pulchritudinous land, alive with poisonous creatures, where the beautiful and the deadly live in constant, fitful juxtaposition. The team must be ever on alert: bamboo trees are thick with fire ants; half-buried rocks covered in slick moss sit atop ancient land mines; tiny waterfalls are alive with miniature rainbows and thirsty leeches; bomb craters turned gardens bloom with cerulean and flaxen wildflowers. It is a land full of portent, charged with a color-saturated dewy beauty, victim of its own history and its own environment.
Tim O’Brien, in his book of short stories
As a result of lessons learned during both the Civil War and the Spanish-American War (and even, somewhat, from the Mexican War of 1846–48, in which almost none of our 13,000 killed were recovered) the military created a division assigned the task of accounting for war dead. The new Graves Registration became part of the Quartermaster General’s Office and was charged not only with marking and burying the dead but also with identifying unknown soldiers.
That did not include, however, extensive searches for soldiers missing in action. In August of 1917, when America had been in the Great War for less than six months, Gen. John J. Pershing requested the establishment of an overseas graves-registration service to inter American casualties in European cemeteries created near where they had fought. Soldiers now wore dog tags, which aided the identification process. At its peak Pershing’s graves registration had 350 officers and 18,000 enlisted men working in France, Italy, Belgium, Russia, and several other countries, and by 1919, 80,000 U.S. soldiers had been buried in more than 500 cemeteries in Western Europe.
A 1930 article from The Quartermaster Review tried to articulate the difficulty of finding these soldiers: “At best, a human body is not particularly conspicuous on a modern battlefield, among trenches, shell craters and resulting debris, stretching beyond the limits of vision. This is especially true when it is considered that our uniform is designed to blend with the ground and to render our soldiers as ‘invisible’ as possible to hostile eyes. Further, men were instructed and instinct prompted them, to take advantage of all available means of shelter from the withering fire of the enemy. Anything and any place offering the slightest shelter from those indescribable blasts of death unceasingly sweeping over and around them was to be taken advantage of. ... A minute’s thought here will help one realize the enormity of the task confronting those engaged in this work.”
Trying to find a missing combatant requires archeology as detective work.
A common sentiment, expressed most publicly by Col. Theodore Roosevelt, who requested that his son Lt. Quentin Roosevelt remain buried where the air-man had fallen, reflected a desire of families to leave their sons in the land where they had been killed. Nearly half of all families made such requests during the Great War. Today eight enormous cemeteries, consolidated from the hundreds set up during the war, hold American casualties of World War I in France, Britain, and Belgium. More than 1,600 remain buried as unknown soldiers, and another 3,000 remain missing in action.
Similar cemeteries were established during World War II in Europe, the Philippines, and North Africa. Today Graves Registration is called Mortuary Affairs and sends its charges out scouring the earth with JPAC personnel for American soldiers missing in action from World War II, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, and even the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.