- 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
Korea was the first conflict in which the U.S. sent back home while the war was under way.
In November of 1996 a Washington, D.C., General Services Administration carpenter with airy blue eyes and a passion for history named Richard Lyons was charged with ridding a house of vagrants before its slated demolition and subsequent redevelopment. At the three-story red-brick building, halfway between the White House and the Capitol, he wandered up to the top floor and looked around. Between the rafters Lyons spied an envelope turned a crisp yellow. He found a ladder nearby, climbed up, and braced himself by grabbing hold of the floor above him. When he did, thin metal clanged against the wood, and he pulled down a tiny tin sign. MISSING SOLDIERS OFFICE 3RD STORY ROOM 9 MISS CLARA BARTON , it read.
Holding the sign, Lyons climbed higher. He found old gauze bandages, three nineteenth-century women’s blue shirts, one of which had a hole in the sleeve. He found thousands of Civil War—era letters, files, abolitionist publications, old photographs, inkwells and steel pen points, women’s straw hats, hand-held ladies’ fans, funeral bunting, and rosters with the names of soldiers listed on them. He found walls with molding white satin wallpaper and an upside-down number nine hanging on one door.
All told, he discovered more than 20 boxes of material. “Get rid of it,” he re-members the developer ordering him. But Richard Lyons didn’t. Instead he started researching. He learned that Clara Barton, whose living quarters had been room nine, had hung white satin wallpaper in her office and that she was rumored to have once had a bullet go through the sleeve of a blue shirt she was wearing while caring for a wounded soldier. He also learned that no one knew where her old office had been located.
After his researches, Lyons took a vacation day from work, boxed up all he had found, and brought it home. Then he began a mission of his own.
By World War II the military had had much experience with both casualties and the missing in action. Better records of soldiers were kept, including medical and dental charts, which made identification easier. To search for the missing, the Graves Registration service instigated, for the first time, special search teams divided into three groups: those that would follow up on all reports and rumors regarding buried or missing soldiers, those that would dis-inter a body after a gravesite was discovered, and those that would attempt to make identification.
The search teams entered small towns to scout around for possible gravesites. Clergy and local citizens were interviewed, and any existing records studied. If a body was found, a dog tag or personal I.D. papers were generally enough to identify it, though fingerprints and dental records were often used in the absence of other material. Even watchmakers’ and jewelry makers’ records could be pivotal in identifying soldiers. The conditions under which World War II had been fought—particularly the sheer number of battles and soldiers involved—were unlike any our military service had encountered. More than 18,000 still lie unidentified in foreign graves today, in addition to the missing whose bodies were never recovered.
By the time of the Korean War the military had begun using physical anthropologists and forensic experts in identification laboratories. As before, dental and medical records were checked, and fingerprints were now compared, if possible, with those in FBI files. When every possibility for identification had been exhausted, remains were placed in flag-draped coffins and shipped to Hawaii for burial. These unknown soldiers were given quiet ceremonies; the government knew attention would bring controversy. After the Korean War 8,200 men were unaccounted for, most of whom remain so today.
Korea was the first conflict in which the U.S. government attempted to embalm remains and ship them back home while the war was still under way. The national sentiment that had existed when Colonel Roosevelt ordered that his son be buried where he’d fallen was gone, in part, presumably, because Korea was not a popular war and did not enjoy the public support of World Wars I and II. When a general named Walton H. Walker was killed in a vehicle accident just before Christmas 1950 in South Korea and his body was immediately flown home for interment at Arlington National Cemetery, the families of other soldiers demanded the same treatment for their sons.
In the Cam Lo district, several hours north of where Augustus Goodman is working in the A Shau Valley, another JPAC team is busy. An earthy blond biological archeologist named Dr. Elizabeth (“Zib”) Martinson Goodman sifts through sandy soil that tumbles in loose clusters down the sun-baked hill in an area yet untouched by the season’s monsoons. Her hair is looped through a baseball cap, and she wears a red MIA bracelet just like Goodman’s on her wrist (David S. Price, lost in Laos). At JPAC they call her the Sure Thing because she’s had bone finds on four of her five missions; it is a formidably successful track record. She is the team leader in charge at this site, and the last name is no accident; she is also Augustus’s wife.