The final journey home
- By Dan Verton
- Jun 26, 2000
The sick, broken and dying soldiers huddled close to one another as darkness
fell on a place the Chinese called "the hospital." In reality, it was not
a hospital at all, but an old temple near the Yalu River where the Chinese
and North Korean armies sent their prisoners of war to die.
Army Pfc. Richard Krepps was sent to the POW camp in the winter of 1950,
suffering from pneumonia and pellagra, a dietary disease that causes diarrhea,
depression and, ultimately, death. He had been taken prisoner during a fierce
five-day battle to cover the withdrawal of the 2nd Infantry Division from
a small town called Kunu-Ri in North Korea and then sent on a two-week forced
march through "Death Valley."
Night after night at the POW camp, Krepps lay on the frozen floor and refused
to eat the paltry rations of millet and barley offered to him by his captors.
The charcoal he had been given to treat the diarrhea did little to ease
his suffering. Soon, his condition weakened to the point where, in the words
of fellow POW Ronald Lovejoy, "he lost his will to eat and the will to live."
One morning, Chinese soldiers entered the POW camp and removed Krepp's cold,
stiff body and placed it atop a pile of frozen corpses, stacked just outside
the building. That was the last time anybody ever saw Krepps. He never made
But Krepps and the more than 8,100 other missing veterans from the Korean
War may make that final journey thanks to the high-tech work being conducted
by the Defense Department's Joint Task Force Full Accounting. The JTF-FA,
working with the Army's Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii, has stepped
up efforts to locate and identify the remains of missing veterans from World
War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. One by one, it is bringing veterans
In December, the lab, which is one of the operational arms of the JTF-FA,
put its systems, databases and revolutionary chemical analysis procedures
to work to identify the remains of nine of the last 13 men killed during
the Vietnam War. The lab also began work on the post-mortem records of 867
unidentified casualties of the Korean War buried in 1956 in the Punchbowl
cemetery in Hawaii. Close matches have been made, and technicians said that
by this summer the lab could start making more positive matches.
High-Tech Tools Deliver Promise
As part of its toolkit for identifying remains, a team of anthropologists
and pathologists relies on the Computer- Aided Post Mortem ID (CAPMI) dental
database, which helped identify two of the Vietnam MIAs. The DOS-based program,
which contains the dental records of all the remaining 2,043 Vietnam War
MIAs, provided a quick match for the servicemen.
Lab scientists also use the recently installed Automated Recovery and
Identification System (ARIS), developed by Litton/PRC Inc. using Oracle
Corp. databases and running on a network with 120 workstations and two servers.
The lab recently started transferring its Korean War and Vietnam War
records into ARIS, which has additional information on casualties, narratives
of the actions that led to individual servicemen's deaths and an inventory
of evidence from recovery sites. Scientists use this data to narrow the
window on the number of dental X-rays they must pull to try to make matches.
CAPMI enables analysts to run a sort/match program using a record of
one of the remains at the Punchbowl cemetery against the CAPMI database
of 8,100 Korean War MIAs. The search capability is key to providing analysts
with a close match before the remains are disinterred.
A newly acquired computerized digital radiography (CDR) system also
helps to 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. Technicians at the lab fire the X-ray across a tooth
sample mounted above a computer sensor plate, and an X-ray digital image
of the tooth appears on a computer monitor.
Using the CDR windowing system, analysts can view the X-ray of the unidentified
tooth from a Korean War recovery site alongside an X-ray taken when a serviceman
was alive. Fillings in the recovered tooth can then be compared with the
fillings from the stored X-ray image.
The CDR system also 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, but the process is made easier with the CDR system.
Getting Dirty With IT
But not all of this high-tech effort takes place within the confines
of a sterile lab.
The JTF-FA gets dirty and sends identification teams to remote areas
around the world, sometimes in dense jungle and mountainous surroundings,
to follow up on evidence they believe may lead them to the remains of an
MIA. It is that part of the JTF-FA's mission that often puts today's information
technology to the test.
"The one weak link is the infrastructures in the host nations," particularly
Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, said Marine Capt. Mike Terrel, the J-6 in
charge of the JTF-FA's communications and computer systems support division.
The division must support up to six recovery teams totaling about 100 people,
To overcome the lack of infrastructure and to help expedite the process
of transmitting information from the excavation sites to the JTF-FA headquarters,
the JTF-FA invested about $1 million in communications and infrastructure
upgrades, including Iridium LLC cell phones, Terrel said. In addition, the
command is transitioning to Inmarsat satellite communications, which is
the only communications link available in Southeast Asia, he said.
Once this expedition-ary communications architecture is in place, the
dig teams rely on laptops loaded with a secure data-base of scanned records
that allows them to take the lab's database with them to the site. Digital
cameras also enable the teams to capture images of wreckage that may help
confirm the identities of some MIAs, Terrel said. The communications backbone
then allows for direct-dial e-mail from a handheld radio.
"Instead of a team leader using a binder full of information, now he
can have the map loaded on his laptop," said Marine Maj. Mike Johnson, a
team leader with the JTF-FA.
But sometimes politics still gets in the way, Johnson said. "Vietnam
and Laos are still communist, and to a large degree they don't like us bringing
commercial communications into their country," he said. "So a lot is reliant
on the phone lines of the host nation.... We're talking 9.6 kilobits per
Although host-nation support may not get much better any time soon,
the JTF-FA has made IT a top priority, Johnson said. "We've gone from a
basically nonexistent budget to $250,000 per year being spent now on IT,"
he said. "It has become a commander's priority to equip his team with the
Although the high-tech effort to crunch through the mountains of dental
and skeletal records has helped cut the time it will take to make the identifications,
fellow veterans and families of those still missing do not view the project
as a testament to computers and software.
It's about the promise of finding closure. Knowing you left many behind,
say some veterans, is like wearing a crown of thorns for the rest of your
"When the war ended, Richard never came back to our new home in Essex, Maryland,"
said Vincent Krepps, the twin brother of Richard Krepps and a recipient
of the Silver Star for gallantry during the Korean War. "The Chinese would
say he died in a prison camp near the Manchurian border in 1951. But no
proof was ever produced. Richard's body never came home. No clothing, no
personal effects were delivered to the family.
"The fighting in Korea ended [and] Americans got on with their lives.
But I could never forget the war," Vincent Krepps said. "And with each passing
year, the need to know Richard's fate consumed me to a larger degree. Today,
it's an ache in my soul that never seems to go away."
Hugh Eaton, an air traffic control tower operator in Korea during the
war, said closure is a critical part of the grieving process for families
of MIAs. "Being deprived of this ceremony is an emotional block for those
parents, siblings and friends whose loved ones' remains are not recovered
or their fate is never accurately determined or verified," Eaton said. "Those
efforts must be supported with the funds and the expertise required to do
a first-rate job."
Amid all of the sorrow and pain that surrounds the MIA issue, there
have been a few success stories. One of those is the story of Air Force
Col. Mark Stephensen, who, as a major, disappeared in 1967 while flying
his 94th combat mission in an RF-4C aircraft. He was flying a pre-strike,
infrared photo reconnaissance mission on a bridge between Hanoi and Hai-phong
when his plane was hit, caught fire and crashed.
Although his navigator managed to eject, for years there was no word
on Stephensen. "After 20 years of nothing, we were merely hoping to verify
that the shear pins on the ejection seat were still in the aircraft, confirming
he died in the crash," said Stephensen's son Mark.
Thanks to the identification lab, however, word of Stephensen's fate
came in June 1998 when the lab made a successful identification of his remains.
"Words are almost meaningless in trying to describe how it feels to
finally get my father returned," he said. "We were a patriotic family growing
up in unpatriotic times. When we were handed the flag from my father's casket,
the healing process could commence. It still goes on, somewhat, but it is
much better than not ever knowing.
"I was able to go to [the lab] to see what they did. I was completely
gratified to see the dignity they gave to those whose identity they were
seeking. [The lab] is the epitome of American technology, American honor
and American dedication."