"The Cold War

In December 1991, President Yeltsin and President George H.W. Bush agreed on formation of a bilateral commission to address POW/MIA matters resulting in the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs, inaugurated in Moscow in March 1992. The U.S. delegation is led by retired Major General Roland Lajoie, with commissioners from the legislative and executive branches of government. The joint commission's objectives are to determine whether any American POW/MIAs were held in the former Soviet Union, and to obtain access to people, documents and archival information that could help resolve questions about unaccounted-for servicemen. The commission holds its plenary meetings in Moscow and Washington and has fostered cooperation between The U.S. and Russia on this issue. Its work led to the return and identification of the remains of a B-29 crewmember who was shot down by the Soviets in 1952, as well as the remains of 17 other airmen shot down in 1958 over Soviet Armenia. To date, 126 Americans are still listed as missing in action and unaccounted-for from the Cold War.

Korean War

     JPAC has 5 teams dedicated to finding those lost in the Korean War. With more than 8,100 American servicemen from the Korean War that have not yet been accounted for, the task is daunting. From 1954 to 1990 the U.S. sought, to no avail, to account for Americans missing in North Korea. Then, between 1990-1994, North Korea unilaterally excavated and returned more than 200 sets of remains to the U.S. However, due to co-mingling of the remains and other complicating factors, very few have been identified. The recovery techniques employed by North Korea clearly demonstrated that U.S. government technical expertise through joint operations is essential to potential identification of remains. Since July 1996, joint recovery operations have located more than 170 sets of remains believed to be American. 13 of those have been identified to date, with others still in the process of forensic identification. JPAC teams are currently conducting remains recovery operations in the Unsan County and Chosin Reservoir areas of North Korea. "


Mission and History

      The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), located on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, was activated on Oct. 1, 2003. JPAC’s mission is to achieve the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of our nation’s previous conflicts. Our highest priority is the return of any living Americans that remain prisoners of war.
     JPAC was created from the merger of the 30 year old U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii, and the 11 year old Joint Task Force - Full Accounting. This 425-person organization, commanded by a flag officer, is committed and dedicated to bringing home the nation’s service members and civilians who made the ultimate sacrifice.
     JPAC recognizes that the efforts and involvement of our POW/MIA families contribute significantly to our success. JPAC owes a great deal of gratitude to the families and veterans who support our mission.
     We are a jointly manned unit with handpicked Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines with specialized skills and Department of the Navy civilians who make up about 25 percent of the organization. The laboratory portion of JPAC, referred to as the Central Identification Laboratory (CIL), is the largest forensic anthropology laboratory in the world.
     Our mission is daunting, with approximately 78,000 Americans missing from World War II (of those, an estimated 35,000 are deemed recoverable, with the others lost at sea or entombed in sunken vessels), 8,100 missing from the Korean War, 1,800 missing from the Vietnam War, 120 missing from the Cold War, and one serviceman missing from the Gulf War.
     To accomplish its mission, JPAC is organized to support five main areas: analysis, negotiations, investigations, recovery and identification.


     The search process begins with historians and analysts gathering information from multiple sources and is primarily archival in nature. Information regarding POW/MIAs comes from multiple sources, including unaccounted-for personnel records, outside researchers, the national archives, and record depositories maintained by foreign governments. In addition, veterans, historians and amateur researchers are interviewed regularly. In some cases, families of missing Americans provide information such as pre-war medical or dental records.
     Researchers then create a loss incident case file for each unaccounted-for individual which includes: general and specific histories from each conflict, archival documents from each of the service branches, official correspondence, maps, photographs, unit histories, records of the daily activities of servicemen in the field, and military medical and personnel records of the missing individual.
     Once the background work is concluded, analysts provide the operations and laboratory sections of JPAC with information regarding the loss. An investigative or recovery team then deploys with an understanding of the location, including any material evidence or unexploded ordnance at the site. They are also briefed on the individuals associated with the incident and the circumstances surrounding the incident, and any local witnesses who may be able to provide additional details. The analysis is an ongoing process as new information is continuously added to each file, and which will continue until the individual has been accounted-for. In addition to conducting research to support ongoing field activities, the research/intelligence section also provides historical analyses to help with the identification of remains obtained in unilateral turnovers from foreign governments.


      JPAC routinely carries out technical negotiations and talks with representatives of foreign governments, including Russia, Germany, France, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, North Korea, China, Papua New Guinea, Burma, and other nations, in order to ensure positive in-country conditions are created for JPAC investigative and recovery operations.
     JPAC works closely with other U.S. agencies involved in the POW/MIA issue such as the Department of State, the Joint Staff, Office of Secretary of Defense/Personnel and Readiness, U. S. Pacific Command, Defense Intelligence Agency, Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, and Armed Forces Institute of Pathology as well as other agencies as required.


      Field investigative teams deploy to locations around the world with three primary goals. The first goal is to document and survey potential recovery sites so that recovery teams have the most accurate and up-to-date information about a case prior to their arrival. These sites include locations previously identified by archival research, as well as leads from investigations conducted by the host country (unilateral investigations). Secondly, teams try to generate new leads that may result in future recoveries. Investigators operating in countries with media or a strong community network often gain new, valuable information about additional sites simply by being on site and talking with individuals. Finally, investigative teams assist in the planning of future recovery selections. The recommendation by the investigative team, which has physically been to the potential crash or burial site, is crucial in the recovery process.
     JPAC maintains six investigative teams consisting of four to nine members with specialized skills, including a team leader, assistant team leader, analyst, linguist, and a medic. In some instances an anthropologist, explosive ordnance technician, and /or a life support technician will augment the team. The investigative teams, normally deploying 35 days at a time, act independently of a normal recovery operation, interviewing potential witnesses, conducting on-site reconnaissance, and surveying terrain for safety and logistical concerns. The goal is to obtain enough information to correlate or connect a particular site with an MIA, at which time the site may be recommended for recovery.
     Until analysis is complete and a determination is made that a recovery is feasible, a case is classified as requiring further investigation. This may occur in instances where the case has safety concerns, further witness information is required or additional documentation is needed.
     Investigative teams are part of the standard joint field activities conducted in Southeast Asia and joint recovery operations in North Korea. Additionally, JPAC sends out investigative teams worldwide to such places as Palau, Papua New Guinea, and South Korea along with Russia, Germany and France. JPAC is assisted with investigations in Southeast Asia by representatives from the Defense Intelligence Agency, Stony Beach.


      All cases recommended for recovery have been previously investigated by JPAC. Once adequate information has been collected and analyzed, the intelligence, operations, and laboratory sections make recommendations as to whether or not to pursue a recovery. Most often, these cases have firm locations, and in some cases remains have been determined to be present at the site.
     Other factors such as weather, terrain challenges, site accessibility, and various logistical and operational concerns help to determine the planning and staging of recoveries. If a site is determined to be in jeopardy (due to urbanization, environmental, regulatory, or political issues beyond the control of JPAC), a recovery is recommended so the site is not lost.
     JPAC has 18 recovery teams - ten teams dedicated to those missing from the war in Southeast Asia, five teams dedicated to the Korean War missing and three teams to recovering missing Americans from World War II, the Cold War and the Gulf War.
     A typical recovery team size is 10 to 14 personnel, and is commanded by the team leader. He is responsible for the operation, safety and welfare of his team. His command group includes a team sergeant (typically an Army sergeant first class trained in the field of mortuary affairs) and a forensic anthropologist (the only civilian team member) who oversees the scientific aspects of the recovery.
     Additional team members include a linguist, medic, life support technician, forensic photographer, explosive ordnance disposal technician, and several mortuary affairs specialists. As the mission dictates, the teams will be augmented with mountaineering specialists, communication technicians and mechanics.
     Standard recovery missions range from 35 to 60 days depending on the location, terrain and recovery methods. Recovery teams use standard field archaeology methods in the excavation as dictated by the anthropologist. Teams either set up base camps adjacent to the recovery area or stay at a nearby guesthouse or hotel.
     Teams walk through jungles, traverse difficult terrain in 4 x 4 vehicles, rappel cliff-sides, hike mountains and glaciers, ride on horseback, in boats, or trains to reach sites. The most common method of reaching remote sites is via helicopter. Teams travel with up to 10,000 pounds in survival and excavation equipment, making transport difficult.
     JPAC has three forward deployed detachments for command and control, each commanded by a lieutenant colonel. The detachments assist with logistics and support, and are located in Bangkok (Thailand), Hanoi (Vietnam) and Vientiane (Laos). A fourth roving detachment is maintained for command and control of all other geographical areas.
     In order to facilitate ready support to teams, JPAC maintains eight storage facilities in Hawaii, Thailand, Vietnam, Germany, Laos, North Korea and (two) in Papua New Guinea. Having these facilities strategically placed around the world saves the cost of shipping, and more importantly, provides ready access to supplies for teams in remote locations. The equipment necessary to support a recovery mission is extensive, from generators, wet-screening stations, tents, and medical supplies, to batteries, bottled water, eating utensils, and film. Recovery teams also work closely with host nation officials to determine the number of local workers needed at a recovery site and any additional equipment that may be required. The number of local workers can range anywhere from 10 to more than 100.
     The recovery process is best described as physically painstaking, sweaty, arduous and meticulous due to the terrain, climate and the need to implement scientific recovery procedures. The anthropologist, typically with a doctorate in forensic archaeology (excavating human remains) and/or forensic anthropology (identifying human remains), directs the excavation at a recovery site much like a detective oversees a crime scene. They develop the manner in which all operations will proceed, including the extent of the excavation area, depth of digging, and the techniques employed.
     Other specialists are critical in processing the site. The explosive ordnance disposal technician conducts searches for buried metal, and the life-support technicians (primarily Air Force and Navy enlisted personnel) analyze the life support evidence in the field.
     The site is initially sectioned into 4 x 4 meter grids for excavation. Each ounce of soil is sifted through quarter-inch wire screens. When dictated by the environment or soil conditions, teams employ wet-screening techniques, where all soil/mud is washed through wire mesh with high-pressure hoses. Wire screens allow the team members to catch the smallest portion of remains, artifacts, or personal effects.

     Recovery sites have been as small as a few meters for individual burials in North Korea, to areas exceeding the size of a football field for aircraft crashes in places such as Vietnam and Cambodia. The variable terrain encountered by recovery teams has included rice paddies in Southeast Asia, frozen ground in the Korean Peninsula, cliff sides in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, 16,000 foot mountaintops in the Himalayas, and underwater sites off the coasts of Tunisia and England.

     Repatriation ceremonies are conducted to honor the sacrifice made by those individuals whose remains have been recovered. As a sign of respect, the remains are placed into an aluminum transfer case and draped with a U.S. flag. An arrival ceremony is held in Hawaii with a joint service honor guard and senior officers from each service. Veterans, community members and local active-duty military often attend the ceremonies to pay their respects as the remains are transported from a U.S. military plane to JPAC's CIL.


      Upon arrival at the laboratory, all remains and artifacts are assigned an accession number, signed over to the custody of the CIL and stored in a secure area during all stages of analysis. A small percentage of JPAC personnel have access to the remains to maintain the highest level of security, and all access to the remains is carefully monitored.
     A variety of techniques are used to establish the identification of missing Americans. The tools include analysis of skeletal and dental remains, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), material evidence, personal effects and life-support equipment. The JPAC scientific director, who maintains control over the entire identification process, evaluates these overlapping lines of evidence.
     The CIL's staff of more than 30 forensic anthropologists examines all recovered skeletal remains in order to produce a "biological profile." This profile includes the sex, race, age at death, and height of the individual. Anthropologists also analyze any trauma caused at or near the time of death and pathological conditions of bone such as arthritis or previous (healed) breaks.
     This entire procedure is carried out “blind.” The forensic anthropologist assigned the case in the laboratory is not the individual who completed the recovery in the field. This anthropologist does not know the suspected identity or details of the loss incident at the time of analysis. The blind analysis is completed in order to prevent any subconscious bias from influencing the scientist’s analysis.

     Dental remains are extremely important to the identification process, both because they offer the best means by which to positively identify an individual and because they are durable and may contain surviving mtDNA. An individual’s dental records are often the best means of identification due to the unique characteristics that are available from teeth, including commonly observed dental treatments such as extraction, fillings, crowns, and partial dentures. The dental records from an individual’s personnel file are compared with remains received at the laboratory by the forensic odontologists (dentists) who are U.S. military officers. Ideally, the forensic odontologist will have antemortem (before death) X-rays to use for comparison, but even handwritten charts and treatment notes can be critical to the identification process.
     JPAC uses mtDNA in about half of its cases. Because using mtDNA adds approximately a year to the identification process, it is only used in the identification if a final piece of evidence is needed. This type of DNA consists of very short strands that are contained in a person’s cells. Unlike nuclear DNA, which is unique to that person, mtDNA is passed directly from a person’s mother. Thus, all persons of the same maternal line will have the same mtDNA sequences. These sequences are very rare but are not unique within the general population, and therefore cannot stand-alone as a piece of evidence for an identification. In order to compare mtDNA obtained from unidentified remains, a DNA sample is required from a living maternal relative, i.e. an individual’s mother, siblings, or descendents of female siblings.
     All mtDNA samples taken at the CIL are analyzed at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL), located in Rockville, Md. AFDIL extracts and amplifies surviving mtDNA, and determines the genetic pattern present. This pattern is then compared with those patterns from family reference samples given from each (suspected) unidentified service member’s family.
     All items relating to an unresolved case, excluding skeletal or dental remains, are considered “material evidence” and may include such items as aircraft data plates, ordnance, and pieces of issued items such as weapons, packs, mess kits, and uniforms. All such artifacts are examined in the field, and those lacking evidentiary value are photographed and left behind. Items considered relevant to the identification are selected by the anthropologist or life-support technician and brought back to the laboratory for analysis. This material evidence may aid in the identification of sought-after missing Americans.

     Personal effects are a special category of material evidence. Every effort is made to recover all personal effects from the excavation sites since these aid in the identification process, and are invaluable mementos for surviving family members. Once the identification process is complete, these items, which include such things as watches with inscribed names, pilot’s wings, medals, wallets, personal letters, photographs, jewelry and identification tags or cards, are returned to families and loved ones.
     Life-support equipment includes any piece of equipment associated with a pilot that would indicate his presence within a crashed aircraft. Items such as parachute parts or helmet pieces can be critical in determining if a pilot was in the aircraft at the time of impact and if the crash was survivable. Furthermore, multiple life-support items may indicate the number of individuals associated with a crash site. JPAC works closely with the U.S. Air Force Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory at Brooks City-Base, Texas, to help analyze items recovered in the field.

The Closure Process Begins

      While JPAC's CIL identifies two Americans a week on average, the recovery and identification process may take years to complete. In addition to the factors previously mentioned, each separate line of evidence must be examined at the CIL (bones, teeth, and material evidence) and correlated with all historical evidence. All reports must also undergo a thorough peer review process. Additionally, if mtDNA is part of the process, the search for family reference samples for mtDNA comparison can add a significant amount of time to the identification process.
     Completed cases are forwarded to the appropriate service mortuary affairs office, who then notifies the family personally of the identification. If the family disagrees with the identification, the case is sent to the Armed Forces Identification Review Board (AFIRB) in Alexandria, Va., for arbitration.
     This board is composed of senior military officers with one voting member from each military service. The AFIRB evaluates all the evidence and determines whether the identification is complete or if the case should be returned to the CIL for further clarification.


The U.S. Government, the Department of Defense and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command remain committed to scientific excellence and the fullest possible accounting of all Americans still missing or unaccounted for in defense of this great country. JPAC will continue to fulfill our nation's promise to the POW/MIA families and those Americans still waiting to come home.

"For two generations, you have demanded a full accounting of Americans whose fate is undetermined, and my administration will not rest until that accounting is complete."
~ George W. Bush"

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