HONOLULU — They’d heard the village lore: Bushmen came upon wreckage of an American bomber in the jungle after a spectacular air attack over New Guinea. As the story went, there were three or four bodies on a hillside.
Ever respectful of the dead, the villagers carefully covered them with parachutes.
This story had been handed down through generations. Was it even true?
Sixty-five years after the B-24 was shot down, Kelley Esh was about to find out. In 2009, the archaeologist was at the site of the crash, looking for whatever remained of the crew. She was at the hillside the villagers described, a good place to dig.
Ms. Esh, 36, and her team from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) had been at this several days already. They worked 12-hour days in the humid jungle, subsisting on rice and trail mix, and sleeping beneath tarps in the base camp they’d set up in the dense bamboo forest filled with cassowary, wild pigs, reptiles and spiders that dropped from the trees.
A shovelful of clay brought up what appeared to be fragments of mud-caked silk and Ms. Esh, the lead archaeologist, ordered her crew to switch to trowels for more delicate work.
A light-brown shard appeared. It was baked into the jungle’s sticky clay floor. Then another. This was what they came for.
At moments like this, she would congratulate her team and tell them, “We’re going to bring somebody home.”
The bone fragments uncovered that day in 2009 would turn out to be the remains of Tech Sgt. Charles L. Johnston of Pittsburgh, who had been missing since April 10, 1944.
Her team would eventually find the remains of seven other crew members who were killed in the crash.
Providing DNA analysis is the job of other scientists back in Hawaii and in Dover, Del., Ms. Esh’s job is to bring the remains home.
“It’s a rush of relief that we’re finding these individuals and we’re going to be able to bring them home to their families,” said Ms. Esh during a recent interview at the DPAA facilty located at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii.
“These are folks who were told that their loved one was lost in Papua, New Guinea.... They got a letter and that was all we could really tell them. So whatever we can do to tell them what happened, how their loved one served their country and died for their country — and to be able to return that person to the family — is incredibly important.”
DPAA, previously known as the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, first went to the crash site in New Guinea in 2001. The team was led there by local villagers. It was in the middle of their hunting ground, a place they first learned of from elders who had seen the crash and protectively covered the airmen’s bodies with their parachutes.
The debris was spread over 60 acres of steep hills and meandering streams. The site was beautiful but difficult to traverse. It would take DPAA teams four missions over 10 years to carefully move massive pieces of wreckage and thoroughly excavate the area.
An engine and turret were to the south and the tail section was on a ridgeline 750 meters to the northwest, jutting from the earth like a monument over hallowed ground.
The tail number was painted on a side angled downward, protecting it from fading.
For each mission, Ms. Esh would bring teams of anthropologists, translators, photographers, explosives experts, investigators, medics and others, but their work wasn’t limited to their areas of expertise. Everyone ended up with shovels, trowels and pick axes for several hours a day, cutting brush, digging assigned 4-by-4-meter areas and pushing soil through metal grids to screen for human bones and other evidence.
“I work them pretty hard. … It’s very, very hard and tedious work. Any handful of dirt could have possible human remains or important material evidence,” she said. “When it’s hot and everyone’s really tired I remind my team we want to be able to look every family in the eye and say we did the best job possible.”
Critics from inside and outside the government say there’s plenty of room for improvement in the agency, which is now making structural changes after a scathing 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office that found waste, duplication and turf wars.
The biggest change is the merger of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Honolulu with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Office in Washington and the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory in San Antonio.
The DPAA is also getting an $85 million high-tech building at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam with more space, newer equipment and better climate controls. Late this summer scientists and other staff members will begin moving from their labs and offices in a series of squat brown trailers on the other side of the base.
Trying to step up the pace
With new resources, a better structure and a funding boost — $131 million this year, up from the $110 million Congress previously allocated to the separate entities — lawmakers are expecting better results. In its defense appropriation bill, Congress set a goal for DPAA to identify by 200 sets of remains this year.
Last year, 107 sets of remains were identified. With 74 accounted for so far this year, agency leaders don’t expect to meet the target of 200. To get there would require the agency to hire a lot more anthropologists and archaeologists.
DPAA leaders couldn’t estimate how much more money it would take to hire enough staff to make 200 identifications a year.
Agency Deputy Commander Johnie Webb envisions partnering with other private groups doing similar work, which would provide cost savings and may involve sharing resources, such as space on military planes.
Some worry that the pressure to annually identify 200 sets of remains will encourage DPAA to pull its resources out of remote areas like New Guinea in order to focus on identifying remains of unknown casualties in military cemeteries.
Agency employees including Air Force Capt. Marcus Peduzzi, who grew up in Plum, say Congress’s goal is misguided.
“You can go out on a site and find a whole aircraft — find exactly what you’re looking for except body parts. Because there was no identification, for Washington, that’s not a successful mission. But for us — we found exactly what we were looking for, site-wise. We successfully accomplished an excavation and we brought home more information than we had before,” Capt. Peduzzi said. “Just because it’s not an identification doesn’t mean it’s an unsuccessful mission.”
Some families of the missing complain that the agency isn’t responsive enough and has refused to dig for their relatives’ remains, even when evidence seems clear.
Scott Thomas, DPAA’s deputy director of operations, said he understands the frustration but there are 83,000 missing service members and not enough resources to search for all of them at once.
Decisions are based on odds of finding remains, the ability to economize by sending multiple teams to the same region, the availability of equipment such as a dive chamber needed for some missions, and negotiations with foreign governments about access to sites. Some sites are inaccessible at certain times of year, for example, during rainy seasons, during winter when the ground might be frozen or in harvest seasons when landowners won’t allow digging for fear of disturbing their crops.
A magnetic board outside Mr. Thomas’s office tracks where he plans to send each team and when – Palau, Laos, New Guinea or Vietnam, for example.
Mr. Webb, who has helped lead the effort since the 1976 creation of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, said there are more teams out than ever before.
“We’ve come a long way since the early days when we would do one mission here and wait another two or three years to do another mission. Now we send six, seven teams out at a time,” he said.
The power of personal effects
Marine Staff Sgt. Bobby Perez, 37, can vouch for the difficulty of the work.
Officially, he was responsible for securing any unexploded bombs around the wreckage of Sgt. Johnston’s B-24. (There were none.) Unofficially, he was one of Ms. Esh’s go-to guys for both strenuous digs and meticulous detail work.
His training as an explosive ordnance disposal technician taught him to be deliberate and methodical, skills that come in handy on digs where something as small as a tooth could be the Holy Grail.
But on this 2009 trip, the team would find much more — bones, wrist watches, compasses, rings, Bowie knives, parachute buckles, shattered aviator glasses, Australian coins, a crushed canteen, a watch band with a tree root growing through it, a .45-caliber pistol and many uniform buttons.
“Finding the .45 was the highlight. That was someone’s personal piece and I sat there — how many decades later? — cleaning it up. That was a piece of history,” Sgt. Perez said.
The objects told the story of young men who weren’t ready to die. Among the wreckage were two rings – trench art, probably made by local villagers. With inscriptions reading “Guinea 1944”, they couldn’t have been acquired more than four months before the fatal attack. One ring still encircled a finger bone, said Sgt. Perez, who used a small paintbrush to carefully sweep debris from evidence in the field.
Finding so many personal objects along with the remains made the case memorable, Ms. Esh said. “It’s an honor to work on cases like this … because you know the families are going to have these individuals back and know what happened to them.”
The work also brings a sense of security to current troops.
“When we say ‘No man left behind,’ we’re not just saying that. We’re going back and finding them,” Capt. Peduzzi said. “You can go out and fight and do the mission that you need to get done and know we’re not going to forget about you. We’re going to come back for you no matter what.”Previous Chapter Next Chapter