The agency charged with bringing home and identifying American war dead is slow, inefficient and stymied by outdated methods, according to a joint investigation by NPR and ProPublica.
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
Eighty-three thousand American service members who died in wars overseas are still missing. The Pentagon believes the remains of about half are recoverable. It spends more than $100 million a year trying to find them. But a joint investigation by NPR and the independent news organization ProPublica, has found that the agencies tasked with the job are inefficient and their methods are outdated. In fact, the relatives of some of these lost Americans feel they have to do the work themselves.
NPR's Kelly McEvers has the story of one family's quest to find their World War II soldier and bring him home.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The soldier's name was Arthur Kelder, known to his family as Bud. He was a good-looking kid who grew up in Chicago. As the family tells it, Bud enlisted in 1941, figuring he'd served his time then come home and work at the family's fruit and vegetable stand. Bud was stationed in a hospital in Manila. Then in December 1941, the Japanese attacked the U.S. in Pearl Harbor and the Philippines. Bud and thousands of other soldiers were ordered to fall back to a place called Bataan. I went there to try to retrace his steps.
So here we are at the edge of the Bataan Peninsula. In April 1942, more than 10,000 American soldiers and more than 60,000 Filipino soldiers were stationed here. And on April 9th, they surrendered to Japanese forces. And so began the Bataan Death March. The Japanese ordered U.S. and Filipino soldiers to walk, at gunpoint, with little food and water for 65 miles. In four days, about 800 Americans and 10,000 Filipinos died, died of starvation, disease or were killed.
Two days into the march, Bud Kelder was ordered to be a driver for the Japanese. The final entry in his Army file is from a POW camp in the Philippines. I went there, too.
We are now at the site of the Cabanatuan Prisoner of War Camp. So, in late May 1942 or early June, Bud Kelder was sent here. The site is now a monument. All that's left of the original camp is the face of a water tower. So, Bud Kelder was here for several months. And then, all we know is that on November 19th, according to a handwritten note in his file, he died of a disease called pellagra which is a niacin deficiency.
My guide to these sites is retired airman Dave Metherall. He lives in the Philippines and researches war history. I asked him how many people died at the camp.
DAVE METHERALL: Over 3,000 people died here. They day went for a burial from noon to noon. That's everybody who died noon on one day till noon the next were all buried in a single grave.
MCEVERS: This is the problem: Because so many soldiers were buried together, it wasn't clear years later who was whom. U.S. Army Rangers famously liberated Cabanatuan in 1945. Several hundred POWs were still alive. But for the thousands who died, all the Army had was burial rosters, lists of men who'd been placed in each grave. Bud was one of 14 men buried in grave 717, says John Eakin one of Bud's cousins.
JOHN EAKIN: When they opened grave 717, one of the sets of remains had a dog tag. He was immediately identified. The next three, they eventually identified them and returned them to their families.
MCEVERS: That's because those men had dental records on file that could be matched with their actual teeth. The other 10 men in that grave, including Bud, were labeled unknowns. The Army created an X file for each soldier, X for an unknown. And then they were reburied in the Philippines, eventually in a U.S. military cemetery.
John Eakin knows all this because for years he's done his own research, sent freedom of information requests and scoured through the files to try to figure out where Bud is. Eakin knows how to do this work. He makes a living analyzing government aviation data.
EAKIN: I found this in the Army's Individual Deceased Personnel records. It's written by Bud's father. It's written to the quartermaster general. And he says: Can you give me any information regarding his remains? We would be thankful to have his remains at home.
MCEVERS: That letter was dated 1949. More than six decades later, John Eakin is working to honor Bud's parents' wishes and bring Bud's remains home. To do that he needed to figure out which of those 10 soldiers from that group grave was Bud. He needed some detail that would set Bud apart from the others. Then one day, four years ago, he got it. Bud's family gave him an audiotape of Bud's brother recording himself and his memories.
It's a little hard to hear. The brother is talking about setting up a dental practice and about doing work on Bud's teeth.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Before I got so busy I took and put in some gold inlays in his mouth, where he had some silver fillings...
MCEVERS: I put some gold inlays in his mouth, the brother says. He's talking about Bud. John Eakin went to work. He requested the X files for all 10 men in Bud's grave. In them, were descriptions of their teeth when their bodies were found.
EAKIN: They all had dental charts in them. And only one of them, X816, showed any gold inlays on the dental charts. Seemed like a slam dunk to me.
MCEVERS: X816, Eakin believes, is Bud Kelder. But he can't go dig them up himself. Bud is buried in a U.S. military grave, only the U.S. government can dig him up. So, two years ago, Eakin met representatives from the three top federal agencies tasked with finding, identifying and returning the remains of soldiers from past wars. Eakin presented what he found about Bud and asked them to dig him up, identify him with DNA and bring him home.
The answer from a deputy commander at the lead agency, the joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, known as JPAC...
EAKIN: He told me that he was the decision-maker for all those agencies. And it was his decision that they were not going to pursue the investigation of Bud Kelder's case.
MCEVERS: In our investigation with ProPublica, it's a phrase we heard over and over from families: JPAC won't take my case. Or, if they do, they're going too slowly. In fact, our reporting found that while JPAC and its sister agencies spent more than $100 million every year, they make about 72 IDs a year on average, even though Congress has mandated they ID 200 each year by 2015. One reason we found it to be so slow, JPAC uses an outdated scientific method, not the DNA-led method used by most missing persons' labs worldwide. Add to that a crippling bureaucracy that slows cases down, plus scientists who are so risk-averse they'd rather leave people in the ground than make a false ID.
JPAC won't comment specifically on Bud Kelder's case. But officials there did tell us the standard to disinter serviceman who've already been buried and test them for DNA is very high. In other words, they don't want to dig someone up unless they're confident who it is.
JPAC lab director Tom Holland told us he only approves about four percent of the requests to disinter.
TOM HOLLAND: Our credibility is only as good as our last misidentification. It doesn't matter that I've identified 500 people correctly. If I misidentify one that's what's going to be the focus. That's what's going to be on the news. That's what is going to erode the credibility. So that's what I go home with every night.
MCEVERS: Court documents show JPAC also believes Bud Kelder's files are not as clear-cut as John Eakin thinks, and that his bones might be co-mingled with the bones of other soldiers. But a memo leaked to NPR and ProPublica showed at least one JPAC scientist thought there was enough evidence to dig up Bud and the other men from his group grave and test their DNA against their family's DNA. Yet somehow along the way, the case was dropped.
I asked John Eakin what's happened in Bud's case since his meeting with JPAC two years ago.
EAKIN: We really haven't progressed much from there.
MCEVERS: John Eakin has sued JPAC and the other agencies, asking them to reopen Bud Kelder's file. The case is still in federal court.
Bud is still in the Philippines buried in a cemetery in the capital, Manila, that's maintained by the U.S. I went there to see that cemetery. Like the gravestones of so many unknown soldiers, the gravestone where they think Bud is buried has no name. All it says on the cross is: Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.
By John's calculations, this exact grave where I'm standing, grave number A-12-195, is where Bud Kelder is buried. Now, whether or not he's exactly right, at the very least, he says, the accounting agencies in the federal government should check and see if he's right, should disinter this grave, check it against the family's DNA and see.
Thousands of miles away, Bud Kelder's first cousin takes me to the cemetery where the family wants Bud to be buried. Ron Kelder shows me a mausoleum in the Norwood Park neighborhood of Chicago.
We're standing here at this mausoleum looking where the family wants Bud to be, yeah?
RON KELDER: Yeah.
MCEVERS: And there are people who would say, look. He had an honorable burial. He's in a wonderful, beautiful cemetery in the Philippines. What would you say to that?
KELDER: What I would say to that is that Bud lived through hell. Of his 26 years of life, the last seven months was sheer hell. That's not where Bud would want to be. Our government has a policy of returning everybody, leave nobody behind. I think they should honor it. I think we should do no less.
MCEVERS: Kelly McEvers, NPR News.
CORNISH: Tomorrow, we'll visit the agency tasked with recovering and identifying fallen servicemen, and hear why critics say the policy of leave no one behind has gone wrong. This investigation was reported in partnership with the independent news agency ProPublica. For a link to their report, go to our website: npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.