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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 11:40 a.m., Friday, March 26, 2004

Remains of U.S. war dead from Burma reach Hickam

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

They’re on U.S. soil at last, after 60 years, brought home by a team of investigators who found the remains of seven World War II servicemen at a Burmese crash site last fall.
The remains of World War II servicemen found at a Burmese crash site last fall arrived at Hickam Air Force Base today.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

The remains, which arrived at Hickam Air Force Base this morning, are believed to be those of a crew of seven whose U.S. Army Air Force C-47 transport plane crashed during an air supply flight between Dinjan, India, and Myitkyina, Burma, in 1944.

The remains arrived at Hickam along with a second set of U.S. World War II remains, this one turned over by the Burmese government. This casket, like the first, was draped with an American flag, but it arrived without identifying information about the dead.

The cavernous Hangar 35 at Hickam, with a few hundred uniformed and civilian onlookers gathered and flags of every military service fluttering in the morning breeze, is not the most intimate setting for a homecoming.

But members of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command hope the continued work by investigators will eventually confirm the names of the lost servicemen and bring solace to the families they left behind.

"The hardest part is finding the families," said Lt. Col. Jerry O’Hara, the command’s public affairs chief. "In World War II cases and some in Korea, it’s a big hurdle."

Today’s ceremony marked only the second repatriation of war dead from Burma since 1951.

An honor guard marched the caskets about 50 yards to a bus that will transport the remains to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command’s Central Identification Laboratory. There, forensic DNA and dental record studies will begin the effort to identify them.

The laboratory identifies about two men each week, more than 100 per year.

Although the burden of identifying the World War II missing is overwhelming — about 78,000 Americans from that conflict are still unaccounted for — planes flew lower and slower, leaving more clues in the wreckage, O’Hara said.

The most recent Burma investigation began in November, but a recovery team brought out the remains this month at the crash site, about 15 miles northwest of Myitkyina, said command spokeswoman Ginger Couden.

But not much is yet certain about the second set of remains, O’Hara said, because the command is still examining information provided by the Burmese.

The command has teams out now in Laos and Papua New Guinea and expects to send others out in the next few weeks to North Korea, O’Hara said. The next repatriation ceremony, expected to occur within a month, will pay honor to any remains recovered there, he said.

The negotiations to enter North Korea are still under way, but the command teams are asking to enter the vicinity of Unsan and the Chosin Reservoir, O’Hara said.

Today’s was the sixth ceremony held since the command’s reorganization in October, he added. It comprises the former Joint Task Force Full Accounting and the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory, Hawai'i. Other remains have been brought back from Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, O’Hara said.

The ceremonies are attended by an Air Force unit assigned to pay honor to the servicemen, as well as the command unit and veteran groups, such as Vietnam Veterans of America Oahu Chapter 858.

O’Hara pointed out another regular at these rites.

"That’s Nick Nishimoto, who was a POW in Korea," he said. "He’s here every time."

Similarly, O’Hara said, members of the command feel a loyalty to their mission.

"Sometimes we don’t recover remains at a site, but there is other information," he said. "We have actually found zippers in Vietnam that were associated with a survival kit on an ejection seat associated with a certain aircraft. That would tell us that the serviceman didn’t eject.

"We can determine that a crash wasn’t survivable," he said. "The case isn’t closed if we don’t find remains, but it’s answers that the families never had before, that the families have been waiting years to hear."

Bringing closure to families is one of the satisfying aspects to command duty, which, for mobile teams, involves being on the road more than 200 days out of the year.

"You’d think that with all that time away from families, people wouldn’t want to stay in the command," O’Hara said. "But our people don’t want to leave."

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.