The Military is Leaving the Missing Behind
Tracing his genealogy online one night, John Eakin landed on a name that evoked an old family sorrow.
Arthur “Bud” Kelder, Eakin’s cousin, had died while a POW during World War II, but his body had never been found. Bud’s parents had sent handwritten letters to the Army for years, asking to have their youngest son’s body returned to them in Illinois.
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“It is our hope that his remains may be sent here, for burial at home,” pleaded one.
Six decades later, Eakin, a stubborn Texan who was himself a vet, resolved to find out exactly why Bud had never come home.
In the fall of 2009, Eakin reached out to family members and found that Bud’s older brother had kept a trove of historical documents laying out Bud’s saga: the telegram announcing he was a POW, newspaper clippings, letters sent between Bud and his parents.
Before the Japanese invaded the Philippines, Bud had worked as a dental assistant at the American hospital in Manila, a plum assignment in a tropical getaway. In late 1941, the Army private wrote to his parents about saving his paycheck to buy a custom-made sharkskin suit. It “really is a peach,” Bud wrote.
After war broke out in December 1941, Bud was among 12,000 American troops who were besieged by the Japanese for four months on the Bataan peninsula, just south of Manila.
“What I dream is there will be no more separations between us again and we’ll spend more time together,” he wrote to his parents in cursive two months later. “P.S. Mother! Don’t worry about me.”
The Americans surrendered on April 9, 1942. The Japanese made Bud a driver during the infamous five-day, 65-mile Bataan Death March. He eventually ended up at Cabanatuan, one of the largest POW camps for American troops.
When Eakin tried to figure out what happened next, he ran into an unexpected roadblock.
The Pentagon spends about $100 million a year to find men like Bud, following the ethos of “leave no man behind.” Yet it solves surprisingly few cases, hobbled by overlapping bureaucracy and a stubborn refusal to seize the full potential of modern forensic science. Last year, the military identified just 60 service members out of the about 83,000 Americans missing from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, around 45,000 of whom are considered recoverable.
At the center of the military’s effort is a little-known agency, the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, or J-PAC, and its longtime scientific director, Tom Holland. He alone assesses whether the evidence J-PAC has assembled is sufficient to identify a set of remains: A body goes home only if he signs off.
Over Holland’s 19-year tenure, J-PAC has stuck with an outdated approach that relies primarily on historical and medical records even as others in the field have turned to DNA to quickly and reliably make identifications.
Though finding missing service members can be difficult — some were lost deep in Europe’s forests, others in Southeast Asia’s jungles — Holland’s approach has stymied efforts to identify MIAs even when the military already knows where they are. More than 9,400 service members are buried as “unknowns” in American cemeteries around the world. Holland’s lab has rejected roughly nine out of every 10 requests to exhume such graves.
Holland’s cautious approach is animated by a fear of mistakes.
“Our credibility is only as good as our last misidentification,” he said in an interview. “It doesn’t matter that I’ve identified 500 people correctly. If I misidentify one, that’s what going to be the focus. That’s what’s going to be on the news. That is what is going to erode the credibility. That’s what I go home with every night.”
The top military official at J-PAC, Gen. Kelly McKeague, said he believed the standards for laboratory work to identify a veteran should be higher than the FBI lab’s standard for a death penalty case. With what J-PAC does, he said, there’s “a lot more at stake.”
In recent years, J-PAC and the other agencies responsible for the MIA program have come under intensifying scrutiny. In 2010, when Congress added World War II to J-PAC’s mission, it mandated at least 200 identifications overall a year by 2015 — a benchmark the agency has already said it will not meet. The problems, including those of DNA, go beyond J-PAC. Last month, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered a review of how the military manages the effort.
Time is running out. There are 35,000 missing who experts say are findable from WWII. But the MIA’s closest relatives are dying off — and often with them so are the chances for using DNA to finally identify their long-lost loved ones.
Working from a home he built by hand in Helotes, just north of San Antonio, the gray-haired, lanky Eakin began his search by requesting Bud’s records from the Army.
He got back a remarkable document. Despite horrid conditions, the Americans prisoners had left a road map to find Bud and others like him: the “Cabanatuan POW Camp Death Report.”
Barely surviving on a little more than two cups of rice every day, the POWs had still managed to document the deaths of their comrades. It was a monumental task. Of the several thousand prisoners housed at the camp, only about 500 made it out.
Each day, the survivors dug a single unmarked grave to bury that day’s dead. And each day, the officers kept a meticulous ledger of the men who had died. However little that death roster meant in the prison camp, later, the POWs knew, it would be crucial to getting the fallen home.
The entry for Nov. 19, 1942, lists 14 men. Among them: Private Arthur “Bud” H. Kelder, dead at 4:35 p.m. The 26-year-old had succumbed to pellagra, a vitamin deficiency common among the starved prisoners.
Bud’s parents, unaware of his death for eight more months, kept writing him. On May 20, 1943, Bud’s father wrote, “Dear son, another week has gone and still no word from you. We hope you have a few letters on the way to us.”
Bud’s 34-page file had sat untouched by the government for nearly 60 years, a forgotten folder in a vast repository at the National Archives. Had anyone looked it over, they would have found what Eakin did: The military actually had a pretty good sense of where Bud was.
The files included not only a date for Bud’s death, but also a specific grave for him. After the war, the Army had gone to the POW camp to dig up and identify the bodies of more than 2,700 men who died there. Using the Cabanatuan camp report and recollections of the survivors, the Army numbered the communal graves and matched them with the death list.Bud and 13 others had been in Grave 717.
Limited by the science of the time, the Army was able to identify and send home four men from that grave but not Bud. In the early 1950s, the remaining 10, along with more than 900 others who died at Cabanatuan, were reburied individually as unknowns in an American cemetery in Manila. White crosses marked their graves, bearing the words “Here Rests in Honored Glory A Comrade in Arms. Known but to God.”
To Eakin, it seemed obvious that Bud was among the 10 unidentified sets of remains from Grave 717 — a relatively small group of bones that the military could dig up and test against the DNA of family members. He tried to make it easier for the Pentagon by tracking down relatives of the men in the grave, so they could provide DNA for comparison. He even turned over an envelope Bud had licked.
Eakin said he thought identifying Bud would be “such a no-brainer.”
Reviewing details of the case later, Joshua Hyman, the head of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s DNA Sequencing Facility, described it as a “piece of cake.”
But no one in the military seemed to show much interest. Every month, Eakin called the Army, asking, “When are you going to go dig up these remains?”
Bud’s fate rested with Holland and J-PAC’s lab on a joint Navy-Air Force base in Honolulu.
With his beard, slightly ruffled appearance, and a penchant for storytelling, Holland has the air of a liberal arts professor. Walking through the hallway outside his lab, he pointed proudly to displays of artifacts found with recovered remains: Tattered uniforms, faded, crinkled pictures and pineapple-shaped grenades.
Holland joined J-PAC in 1992 and has spent his entire scientific career there, becoming the lab’s director in 1995. “The lab has been his life,” said Mark Leney, a former J-PAC anthropologist who worked with Holland for six years. “He has an enormous sense of ownership of it.”
Though J-PAC is a military command, the generals who rotate in and out for temporary assignments take no role in the scientific decisions, leaving them to Holland. Almost a dozen current and former staffers described Holland as someone who bridles at being challenged and fiercely protects his fiefdom.
“Expressing dissent was clearly not appreciated and frowned on,” said Leney, who now teaches at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Leney said he and another anthropologist wrote