On May 20, 1943, Herman Kelder sent a letter to his son, a prisoner of war across the ocean.
The last official news he had of his youngest child, who had gone off to the Pacific with the U.S. Army, was a telegram from the War Department a year earlier: The Japanese were holding Pvt. Arthur H. Kelder captive in the Philippines.
Another week has gone and still no word from you. We hope you have a few letters on the way to us.”
— Herman Kelder, in a letter to his son on May 20, 1943
But Bud, as the family called him, was already dead. He had died of pellagra, a common vitamin deficiency disease, in the Cabanatuan prison camp six months earlier, in November 1942.
When the U.S. liberated the Cabanatuan camp in 1945, officials identified as many service members as they could, including service members who were buried in group graves. Bud Kelder was not one of them. All that is known about Kelder is that records kept by other prisoners show he was buried with 13 other men in group grave No. 717.
The U.S. Army separated the bodies of the unidentifiable men in that grave, wrote down distinguishing characteristics, assigned each of them an “X-file” for record keeping and reburied them in the Philippines, eventually at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial.
Bud’s family believe they know — from public records and oral history — exactly where he is buried. And in early 2012, they met representatives from the three top federal agencies tasked with finding, identifying and returning the remains of soldiers from past wars and asked them to disinter and identify Bud’s remains.
The answer, from a deputy commander at the lead agency, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, otherwise known as JPAC, was no.
More than 83,000 people are classified as missing in action or prisoners of war from World War II and the Vietnam and Korean conflicts. The Pentagon deems 45,000 of those “recoverable.” JPAC is charged with finding and identifying them.
It is a monumental task.
Still, a joint investigation by NPR and ProPublica found JPAC’s process of identifying remains is hindered by several layers of bureaucracy, an aversion to risk and a reluctance to lead with DNA testing. Today, JPAC completes about 70 identifications a year. At that rate, NPR and ProPublica calculate, it would take JPAC more than 600 years to find and identify all of the missing.
JPAC is located in Honolulu, Hawaii, in squat, beige buildings on a joint Navy-Air Force base. The mission began in 1973 after the Vietnam War and was focused on Southeast Asia. Over the years, Congress expanded JPAC’s mission to include Korea and then, in 2010, World War II.
Five years ago, in an attempt to speed up the identification process, Congress mandated that JPAC start identifying 200 people a year by 2015. The U.S. spends more than $100 million a year to do it.
But in 2013, JPAC identified only 60 remains. And it has already said it will miss the 2015 deadline.
Recoverable MIA Service Members JPAC Has Identified, By Fiscal Year
At its current average rate of 72 identifications per year, it will take JPAC more than 600 years to complete its work.
Source: Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command
Recoverable MIA Service Members JPAC Has Identified, By Conflict
|World War II||228||35,000*|
Note: According to the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, there are a total of 73,637 World War II MIAs, of which 35,000 are considered “recoverable.”
Source: Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office
JPAC identifies remains that are found in sites around the world. It might, for instance, get word that a property owner in Belgium found part of an American war plane and dig up the area to find who might have been flying that plane. It also has a process of disinterring soldiers buried as unknowns in military cemeteries.
In order to complete an identification for an already interred military service member, JPAC first sifts through historical documents and then reviews medical records to build a circumstantial case about who might be in the grave. If that evidence narrows down the possible matches to five or six people, JPAC will take the rare step of disinterring the body. Only then is DNA used — and only as a confirmation tool.
The Process JPAC Uses To Identify Remains
- 1. Historical research analysis A team of historians at JPAC conduct research on an area’s combat events, previous recovery efforts and personal military and medical records to determine if there’s a high probability of identifying remains in a battlefield, plane crash site, cemetery or other wartime site.
- 2. Archaeological analysis JPAC’s anthropologists disinter the remains on site, gather evidence and return to the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii.
- 3. Forensic anthropology and forensic odontology JPAC anthropologists and forensic odontologists (dentists) analyze skeletal and material remains.
- 4. DNA analysis JPAC scientists remove a portion of a recovered bone to gather mitochondrial DNA. They then ask family members from the pool of potential matches for a DNA sample, which must come from the maternal line. They compare the DNA samples to make the identifications.
Tom Holland, director of the main lab at JPAC, is the final sign-off on every identification. He describes the process as a funnel. First, you make a list of all of the people who could have been at a certain location.
“It may be 100 people, 200 people, 500 people, that’s fine,” he says. Then you narrow it down. “You use artifacts, you use the archaeological analysis, you use the anthropology, you use the dental, you use the DNA, and the idea is you get down to one individual to the exclusion of everybody else,” he says.
But there are many who say JPAC is too cautious and its approach is out of date. “I think that the science is actually pretty good, ” says Mark Leney, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “But it is not executed very efficiently.”
Leney worked in the JPAC lab for six years. He says using a lab run by forensic anthropologists, who meticulously measure bones and create biological profiles, is no longer a good way to identify someone.
“Frankly, determining that somebody is a 5-foot–10 white male between 20 and 24 years of age isn’t terribly useful,” he says. “It often doesn’t get you to an identification.”
Instead, Leney says, the process should be led by DNA. Forensic scientists elsewhere use this approach, first developed in post-conflict Bosnia. Ed Huffine, a U.S.-based scientist, and his team took DNA samples from the remains, then tried to match that DNA with samples taken from family members of the missing. Huffine says they were able to make 400 identifications per month at the peak of the effort in the mid–2000s.
The answer to why JPAC doesn’t lead its process with DNA is confusing and multifaceted.
First, NPR and ProPublica found that the DNA testing is spread across six different agencies, all over the country. Samples from fallen servicemen are taken in Hawaii but tested in Delaware. DNA samples from relatives are collected by the Army in Kentucky, the Navy in Tennessee, the Marines in Virginia and the Air Force in Texas.
Second, NPR and ProPublica found the decision-making process surrounding disinterment stymied by extreme risk aversion. Only 4 percent of the total cases considered move forward. Holland has the final sign-off on every disinterment.
“Our credibility is only as good as our last misidentification,” he says. “It doesn’t matter that I’ve identified 500 people correctly. If I misidentify one, that’s what’s going to be the focus.”
After Holland approves a case, it then goes to the desk of Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, JPAC’s military commander. He has never denied a request, but he says the extreme scrutiny is more than justified. The work JPAC does, McKeague says, matters more than work the FBI might do in a death penalty case.
“There’s much more at stake,” he says. “It defines us as a nation.”
McKeague then cites a quote attributed to Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States: “The nation which forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten.”
Third, the process is mired in bureaucracy. The disinterments JPAC does approve must go through additional government layers to the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, which has its own historians check the work, then to the assistant secretary of the Army for final approval. While these steps tend to be a rubber stamp — the Army has never turned JPAC down — DNA can’t be collected and tested until remains are disinterred, and a disinterment can’t happen until all of those steps are completed.
Holland acknowledges that “the best way to honor those individuals would be to identify them,” and that the quickest way to do that would be to exhume them and use DNA. Still, he's conservative; he says he’s handcuffed by Pentagon policy and hesitant to lose any more autonomy by pushing for more disinterments.
And there’s an additional complication: Disinterred remains that JPAC can’t identify end up sitting in boxes on shelves in a closet. Most people agree that’s not the way to honor soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice, and JPAC told NPR and ProPublica that the standard for disinterring U.S. service members is very high. They don’t want to dig up remains unless they are pretty confident they can identify them.
About 20 percent of the 45,000 MIAs and POWs the Pentagon believes are recoverable are interred as unknowns in American military cemeteries around the world.
One of them is Bud Kelder. He is buried in the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, and his family still wants him to come home.
“Bud lived through hell,” says his cousin, Ron Kelder. “Of his 26 years of life, the last seven months was sheer hell. That’s not where Bud would want to be. Our government has a policy of returning everybody, leave nobody behind. I think they should honor it.”
Bud’s brother, Herman Kelder, was a dentist. Before he died, he recorded an oral history of his life on a cassette tape. On side one of the tape, he explains that when he first opened his practice, before he got too busy, he put some gold inlays in Bud’s teeth where he had had silver ones.
That’s why Bud’s family is convinced Bud is in grave A–12–195 in the cemetery in Manila.
When Bud and the other unidentifiable service members he shared a grave with were reburied after World War II, the scientists at the time noted any distinguishing characteristics in the remains. Only one of the skulls had teeth with gold inlays. And that skull is buried in grave A–12–195.
Bud’s family has sued JPAC and the other agencies, asking them to reopen his file.
The case is still in federal court, but court documents show that JPAC doesn't believe Bud Kelder’s case is as clear-cut as his family thinks it is, and that his bones might be commingled with the bones of other U.S. service members. Still, a memo leaked to NPR and ProPublica showed that at least one JPAC scientist thought there was enough evidence to dig up Bud’s remains. Somehow along the way, the case was dropped.
While it’s unclear what the outcome of the court case will be, last August the judge wrote: “Notwithstanding giving his last full measure of devotion to this country, Private Kelder’s government declines, on technical legal reasons as opposed to spirit of the law, to give him a decent burial in a marked grave alongside others who died in service to the United States.”
The Kelders want to put Bud in the family crypt in the Norwood Park neighborhood of Chicago where Bud grew up. That’s where Bud’s parents, who so badly wanted to bring their boy home, are interred.
Listen to the full story from All Things Considered
Hear more about the efforts by Bud Kelder’s family to bring home his remains in our two-part investigation about the organization tasked with identifying and recovering the remains of America’s war dead.
NPR News: Kelly McEvers, Nicole Beemsterboer, Alicia Cypress, Robert Little and Amy Morgan
ProPublica: Megan McCloskey and Sisi Wei
Design and Development: Kainaz Amaria, Tyler Fisher, Alyson Hurt and Becky Lettenberger
Photography: Elyse Butler, Derek Montgomery and courtesy Kelder family
Published March 6, 2014