IT fills in puzzle of Korean, Vietnam War MIAs

HONOLULU — For years, the remains of the last 13 men killed in the Vietnam War—immortalized on the bottom of the last panel of "the Wall" in Washington, D.C.—have lain unidentified on a table in a nondescript building here at Hickham Air Force Base.

But with the help of a variety of high- and low-tech tools, the Army this month identified nine of the 13 men—almost 25 years after their helicopter, known by its call sign Knife 31, crashed on a Cambodian island during the rescue of 39 sailors from the merchant ship SS Mayaguez (see full list of names).

"Just last month the last guys on the Wall were out there," said Tom Belcher,a civilian Army anthropologist, gesturing to the remains laid out on tables in a glass-walled room outside his office at the Army's Central Identification Laboratory. Thomas Holland, the lab's scientific director, declined to name the soldiers who had been identified until outside consultants review the lab case file and a high-level Defense Department panel completes its review.

Additionally, Craig Powell, the lab's information management officer, asked FCW not to identify the names because the Privacy Act prevents announcing the identification until family members are notified and give their permission for public release.

The identifications are among the first of what the lab expects will be hundreds as it uses computer systems and imaging equipment to help put an end to decades of mystery.

The nine men's remains—recovered four years ago by lab officials and Joint Task Force-Full Accounting, the DOD group charged with resolving missing-in-action cases from the Vietnam War—are among tens of thousands of pieces of bone and teeth in the lab that have been recovered from the jungles of New Guinea, the harsh plains of North Korea and remote islands of Cambodia.

The lab could not identify three of the missing personnel from Knife 31 because the recovered fragments are too small to obtain a DNA sample. The lab also could not resolve the identity of one crash victim because he was adopted, Holland said, making it difficult to obtain DNA from the maternal line to make a match.

As part of its toolkit for identifying the remains, a team of anthropologists and pathologists relies on the Computer-Aided Post Mortem ID (CAPMI) dental database, which helped identify two of the missing servicemen. Holland said the DOS-based program, which contains the dental records of all the remaining 2,043 Vietnam War MIAs, provided a quick match for the two Vietnam servicemen.

The lab also has stepped up efforts to recover and identify Korean War MIAs, which number 8,100. Three were transferred to the lab last week. The lab is transferring to the CAPMI database the post-mortem records of the 867 Korean War unidentified casualties buried in 1956 in the Punchbowl cemetery here. Close matches have been made, and technicians said that by next summer the lab can start making more positive matches.

To demonstrate how CAPMI works, Powell clicked on the dental record of one of the Korean War remains buried in Punchbowl. He ran a sort/match program of that record against the CAPMI database of 8,700 Korean War MIAs. In seconds, the database finished its search, and three names popped up.

Such a match makes the un-identified likely candidates for disinterment and further identification using DNA samples, Powell said. "We don't want to dig everyone up unless we're pretty sure we can make a match," said Johnie Webb, the lab's deputy director.

CAPMI and a newly acquired computerized digital radiography (CDR) system will speed the process of identifying some of the remains. The CDR system includes an arm-mounted, circular X-ray tube—familiar to anyone who has had a dental exam. In a demonstration of the system, Army Staff Sgt. Mike Gwynn, a dental technician at the lab, fired the X-ray tube positioned above a tooth mounted above a computer sensor plate , and the X-ray digital image of the tooth appeared on a computer monitor.

Using the CDR windowing system, he displayed the X-ray of the unidentified tooth from a Korean War recovery site alongside an X-ray taken when a serviceman was alive. Gwynn compared the fillings in the recovered tooth with the fillings from the stored X-ray image. Gwynn can turn and manipulate the X-ray images as well as superimpose the images to compare similarities.

Holland said the CDR enables the lab to quickly replicate the angle of the X-ray tube and film used in the original X-ray. Replicating that angle is a trial-and-error process that could take hundreds of X-rays on a single tooth, a process made easier by the CDR.

Lab scientists also can tap into the recently installed Automated Recovery and Identification System (ARIS), developed by Litton/PRC Inc. using Oracle Corp. databases and running on a recently installed network with 120 workstations and two servers.

The lab is transferring its Korean War and Vietnam War records into ARIS, which has additional information on casualties, a narrative of the action that led to the serviceman's death and an inventory of evidence from recovery sites. Scientists use this information to winnow the number of dental X-rays they must pull to try to make matches.

The computer systems are just what many veterans have been hoping for: a quicker way to identify the remains of their fellow soldiers. "The issue of the more than 8,000 MIAs from the Korean War has twisted my gut for years," said Ralph Crowley, who served in Korea with the 501st Combat Reconnaissance Group. "Like the war itself, just forgotten. Any effort, high-tech or otherwise, honors their memory."

Featured

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.