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Diving Deeper Depths

by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Taylor Stinson, All Hands Magazine
23 July 2019


Over the years, America has faced many conflicts: World War II, Korean War and more. Unfortunately, sometimes service members aren’t able to make it home – whether alive or in a casket. However, over the years, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) had made it their mission to reunite service members and their families. There are currently still many unaccounted for from previous wars, and recent advances in technology have allowed scientists and researchers to explore underwater landscapes that were previously unreachable.


VIDEO | 02:39 | Returning Heroes Home


            “One of the exciting programs that we have that are beginning to be utilized more and more is our underwater archaeology program,” says Dr. Paul Emanovsky, supervisory forensic archaeologist at DPAA. “We have several underwater archaeologists now and teamwork from Army and Navy divers to do underwater recoveries that years ago would have been deemed unrecoverable, but now we’re making progress on a myriad of underwater sites.”

            Since 2015, DPAA focused much of its energy on the USS Oklahoma (BB-37), a Nevada-class battleship that was on Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. After the Pearl Harbor attack, 429 deaths were confirmed from the USS Oklahoma. As of February, DPAA hit its first major milestone with the USS Oklahoma project, confirming a positive identity match of its 200th crewman. Fireman 1st Class Billy James Johnson was identified from a set of 388 individual remains.

            While the USS Oklahoma project is still ongoing, it has been so successful that it serves as a pathfinder.

“It was the way forward and showed us we can be successful doing this. So based on Oklahoma’s success, we made the argument to disinter the USS West Virginia and the USS California,” explained Dr. Laurel Freas, forensic anthropologist for the USS West Virginia (BB-48) and USS California (BB-44) projects.

            Unlike popular forensic shows such as Bones or Forensic Files, these projects can take a long time because each step is to be taken seriously and with careful attention to detail. The extensive planning and logistical legwork for a joint field activity or JFA cannot begin until DPAA receives approval from host-nations to dispatch their teams to various locations all over the world.

 “The historians [do] analytical research based on historical files that we have,” said Emanovsky.  “Once the historians have a candidate or a group of candidates for a proposal, they send it to the laboratory and then an anthropologist and a dentist can check the list of historical candidates against the remains that are historically documented. For instance, checking the dental work versus the dental work that the service member would have had. When we make the comparisons and we have enough of those indicators and thresholds met, we submit that memo for approval and get approval to exhume.”

Once in the field, recovery teams examine the excavation site, much like a detective oversees a crime scene. Each mission is unique and comes with its own hazardous territory for the team to consider and varies depending on if the site is on land or in the water. When the site is established, it is combed through carefully, grid by grid, and screened for potential remains, life support equipment or material evidence.

The next important step is when the remains arrive at the lab. Upon arrival, they are stored in a secured area. Forensic anthropologists are then responsible for analyzing the human remains and all the material evidence that is part of the file – i.e. military uniforms, personal affects, I.D. tags, etc. Dental remains are also very important because it may contain mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). The osteologist take samples from the bones and teeth to amplify the surviving mtDNA to determine the genetic sequence. The sequence is then compared to sequences from family references provided by living people who are maternally related to the unknown service member.

The entire process is carried out by dozens of people and can take months or even years to analyze DNA from remains recovered from sites. Oftentimes the remains are commingled, meaning they are remains from multiple people. Additionally, remains have gone through a process which makes it harder for scientists to extract DNA from them, such as being soaked in formaldehyde or being buried more than once over the years. These additional factors are taken into consideration, but make the reality of the situation a lot more time consuming than the general public might think.

“One of the main differences that people expect when they see [forensic analysis] on TV or in the movies versus the reality of working in a human identification lab, or a crime lab, is that DNA results don’t come back within that 30 minute episode,” says Emanovsky. “It often takes much longer for any of the analytical tests to yield a result that we can use in the laboratory.”

Even though these projects are time consuming and require a lot of manpower, DPAA hopes to uphold its word that it will reunite every lost service member with their family, no matter how long that takes.

“There’s a promise that we make as a nation to our service members and that they make to one another that no one will be left behind, no one will be forgotten, and so this is how the nation executes that promise, this is how we go about fulfilling that,” said Freas. “Even if it takes 75 years, or longer, we’re not going to give up, we’re going to keep trying… I think it’s just really, really important for people to understand that level of commitment, that level of dedication, that we’re never going to give up on this.”