Technology aids search for MIAs

Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command's Web site

An enduring legacy of war is that some warfighters disappear — whether they are taken prisoner and never returned, lost in the chaos of battle or destroyed in battle so that their bodies are unidentifiable. Those combatants listed as missing in action stir the nation's psyche.

A Navy organization in Hawaii has been working to investigate, find and identify missing U.S. servicemen. Information technology allows their researchers and analysts to more easily find relevant documents and interpret facts to link cases.

Officials at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command's (JPAC) Central Identification Laboratory, part of the Pacific Command based in Hawaii, toil to investigate the cases of combatant disappearances from World War II through the first Gulf War. Nearly 88,000 U.S. soldiers are still classified as missing, according to Defense Department officials.

To support their research, JPAC investigators are using software called Star Archives, produced by Cuadra Associates Inc., a company based in Los Angeles that specializes in information management software.

Heather Harris, a research fellow at JPAC, found that the software helps command officials archive and cross-reference the massive supply of documents related to the cases of missing and captured U.S. combatants.

"We are a new user of Star Archives and are still implementing" it, Harris said. "We are digitizing some of our files, but we're largely using Star Archives as a way to track paper documents. It has a Web-based search function that allows our anthropologists, historians and analysts to search the archives to determine what documents might relate to their case."

Ilene Slavick, Cuadra's director of marketing, said the company originally developed the software to manage library and museum records. When JPAC officials began looking for software to manage their massive archive of documents, Cuadra officials were launching the archive management tool.

"Star Archives uses the professional standards of archivists that describe what fields and processes to use when archiving," Slavick said. "Our tool links [similar] documents together not just relationally but in a hierarchical manner. You can drill down into a collection of documents on any level."

How it works

When users enter a search term into a field of the Star Archives' Web-based search engine, the browser produces a list of relevant documents that researchers may want to consider viewing. The search term can relate to a particular topic, author or time period, for example.

"Finding information in an archive is often a very cumbersome task, especially when you're dealing with paper," said Rachel Ban, an archivist at History Associates Inc., based in Rockville, Md. "If you can capture a document in a database and preserve the link to an image, a document or at least a document's location, that can speed the process up considerably."

Ban said research tools such as Cuadra's are helping archivists do their jobs more efficiently, because they act like an online search engine.

"If you wanted to look up in an archive all data related to D-Day, you would get a list of documents that may include correspondence that discusses D-Day, groups of pictures of or about D-Day, reports from D-Day" and other relevant information, she said. "While this may not point out the exact information you're looking for, it will help the researcher draw a path between different documents to help them figure out where they need to look."

JPAC officials started a relatively small effort to digitize some documents about U.S. warfighters missing in action based on the large amount of data that exists.

"There were 400,000 casualties from World War II, so we'd need to digitize every single record, report, letter, etc., for each of those people to have what could be considered a 'complete' digitized archive," Harris said.

An example of an archiving challenge would be a plane crash in which 11 crew members were on board, and four died in the crash, two parachuted and were captured, and the remaining five were unaccounted for. "We'd need to have the records of all 11 in one digitized location to be able to perform a 'complete' digital investigation," Harris said.

Ban said another reason digitization is slow in coming to archivists is because visualization standards keep changing. Documents that are digitized could be lost if a standard

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