Advanced DNA Technology May Help To Identify Korean War Unknowns
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Pentagon and VA have started digging up remains and identifying hundreds of American casualties from the Korean War. The massive disinterment project is giving hope to thousands of families of the war dead. From Honolulu, Jay Price of member station WUNC reports.
JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Inside a bowl-shaped volcanic crater just above the Honolulu skyline is one of the most idyllic burial grounds in the world. The crater walls block the sights and sounds of the city, and tropical trees drop flowers on the grave sites. At dawn on a recent Monday, a crew at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific used shovels and earthmoving equipment to free eight caskets from graves marked U.S. Unknown Korea.
UNIDENTIFIED HONOR GUARD: Center, face.
PRICE: Then an honor guard loaded them on trucks, which took them to a military lab just a few miles away.
JOHN BYRD: Forensic science has come a long ways really fast in the last decade or so.
PRICE: John Byrd is the top scientist at the lab, which is charged with recovering and identifying missing U.S. troops.
BYRD: There's kind of this general awareness now that all kinds of things are possible that used to be impossible.
PRICE: So the VA, which runs the cemetery, is exhuming more than 650 Korean War dead here. It's the single largest project the identification lab has ever undertaken to reattach names to American unknowns. And now everyone involved, from the cemetery crews to the soldiers who moved the rusting steel caskets to the lab and cut them open with power saws to the forensic anthropologists who unwrap the remains and clean and sort them into skeletons and then try to figure out who they are, everyone is moving quickly. There's a big reason for the speed.
RICK DOWNES: The ones that really knew them and miss them as people as well as just roles in their life, you know, we're losing them.
PRICE: Rick Downes leads the Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIAs. His father's B-26 bomber went missing over North Korea when Downes was a toddler.
DOWNES: They were the sisters, the wives, the cousins. We're racing time on that generation.
PRICE: Many have already lost that race. His own mother died just two months ago. Downes' advocacy group had pressed for years to get the Hawaii unknowns exhumed because the potential number of identifications was so great.
DOWNES: We started saying, look; you know, there's guys down there. Can you use the newest DNA technology to try to identify them?
PRICE: A Pentagon rule, though, said the scientists had to prove that there was a greater than 50 percent chance that they could identify the remains before they could be exhumed. And there was a problem. Byrd says that after the war, U.S. remains handed over by the governments of both Koreas were taken to a mortuary in Japan where they were dipped in a chemical solution.
BYRD: They were treated with some pretty noxious chemicals, like formaldehyde.
PRICE: It broke down the DNA. But a couple of years ago, the military's DNA lab in Delaware developed a new method. It's slower and requires expensive machinery, but it works. And in recent years, the scientists have also gotten better at using the bones themselves for identifying remains.
EMILY WILSON: So we're looking at often the clavicles first, so your collarbone.
PRICE: Emily Wilson is a forensic anthropologist in the identification lab. She's standing over a skeleton arranged on a table. It's one of the project's first sets of disinterred remains.
WILSON: Normally, what you're looking at is variations, so I'm comparing hands. Everybody's hand is different.
PRICE: In this case, an identification was unusually easy 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. The military has those for thousands of the Korean War missing. And for matching DNA, it has painstakingly built a library of samples from 92 percent of the families of the missing. Again, John Byrd.
BYRD: So everything that was exhumed between 1999 and 2016, we've identified over 70 percent of them.
PRICE: It means the whole nature of being an unknown, a Korean War unknown at least, has flipped. It used to mean that identification was nearly hopeless. Now, it's likely. At one end of the cemetery is a memorial complex honoring Americans who fought in the Pacific. Gene Maestas, the cemetery spokesman, walks up to a row of room-sized marble slabs.
GENE MAESTAS: So these are the courts of the missing.
PRICE: The names of all troops missing in the Pacific are etched on the slabs.
MAESTAS: Reese, Kenneth, FA Battalion, 2nd Division from North Carolina.
PRICE: Reese, Kenneth F. - a name that also appears in sketchy records that North Korea turned over with many of the unknowns. A tall young cotton mill worker who lived in a small town near Charlotte, so shy about his guitar playing that he never let his young wife hear him.
CHRISTINE PORTER: I was 16, he was 19 when we got married. And we only lived together a week. They take him away, and I never saw him again.
PRICE: Christine Porter is propped on her couch, an oxygen tube in her nose. She's 85 now. She has diabetes, and chronic lung disease has made her short of breath. Reese may have been shy about his guitar playing but not about everything. He wasn't gone long before she discovered she was pregnant. Sheila Reese is their daughter.
SHEILA REESE: They told me that I may never know before I die what happened. You're just getting older and it just - I'm 67. I've never met the man, never seen him, don't know how - no memories of him except what's handed down to me. I’ve never seen him laugh, or snuggle, play his guitar - nothing
PRICE: 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 to be a little more hopeful. His widow says that she hopes he's found before she's gone, too.
PORTER: It would mean there'd be closure. I’d know what happened. And I don't have to worry about it anymore because I know.
PRICE: Thousands of families share Porter's hope, and Byrd's lab has great ambitions.
BYRD: There's other big projects, particularly big disinterment projects, with World War II that we're looking at.
PRICE: U.S. troops who died while being held prisoner by the Japanese, including about a thousand at a single POW camp in the Philippines his agency has already begun to exhume. Unknowns - but maybe for not much longer. It took just days for the scientists to identify two of the first eight sets of remains exhumed. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Honolulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.