HONOLULU — The Hawaii-based Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command is being investigated for spending millions on a 3.4-mile gravel road to reach a World War II battlefield in Papua New Guinea when it's not clear how many missing American service members' remains can be recovered, officials said.
Estimated expenditures for the project range from $8 million to $12 million — with even more for future investigative and recovery missions — as JPAC seeks to access what's known as the "Huggins Roadblock" in the swampy central Papuan Peninsula.
Neither JPAC nor the Pentagon would reveal the actual expenditure to date for the roadwork, which was completed in December by U.S. Army engineers, or why it was so costly. But the Defense Department confirmed an investigation is underway.
"Concerns pertaining to the road repair project have been raised, and as such, the U.S. Pacific Command comptroller has convened a preliminary inquiry into the matter. Accordingly, we cannot discuss details regarding a matter that is being investigated," Navy Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said in an email.
News of the investigation comes as JPAC and the broader U.S. effort to investigate, recover and identify Americans missing from past wars have been harshly criticized by the U.S. Government Accountability Office and members of Congress as woefully mismanaged.
An internal 2012 JPAC efficiency report that was leaked to the press last summer, meanwhile, revealed "military tourism" trips to Europe by JPAC staffers who spent lavishly on luxury hotels and fine dining while investigating possible war losses.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a reorganization of the accounting community in March.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said last week the Senate Armed Services Committee approved a plan to establish a single agency responsible for missing-American recovery efforts, with one federal official in charge.
"Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that read, ‘The Buck Stops Here,' and that's the first lesson of strengthening accountability in government," McCaskill said. "With a single agency responsible, and a single official in charge, we can stop the finger-pointing and know exactly who to hold accountable for fixing this troubled program."
The service members JPAC wants to recover in Papua New Guinea were casualties from fighting in late 1942 and early 1943 around the Huggins Roadblock from the Soputa-Sanananda Track campaign.
According to the Army, in July 1942 the Japanese landed at Buna, Gona and Sanananda on the northeast coast of Papua and pushed southward in an attempt to capture Port Moresby and create an invasion base for Australia.
Although many of the allied troops were Australian, the U.S. 126th Infantry Regiment established a roadblock in the Papuan Peninsula swampland in late November 1942 to prevent use of the road through the area by enemy forces.
"Operations of the next three weeks on the Sanananda front consisted essentially of the maintenance of this roadblock against desperate counterattacks from all sides," an Army account of the fighting states. "Sometimes enemy soldiers came so close to our trenches that our men could grab them by the ankles and pull them in."
After his commander was killed, Capt. Meredith H. Huggins took command and was singled out for his bravery, and the location where he fought and was wounded Dec. 3, 1942, now is known as Huggins Roadblock.
After the Pentagon revealed an investigation was being conducted into the JPAC road project to reach the Huggins site, neither it nor JPAC would provide any more information.
But internal JPAC emails and some questions answered earlier by the command about the Huggins Roadblock shed some additional light on the road-building effort.
Of about 100 American soldiers still missing after the war, it appears the Army Graves Registration Service recovered more than 30 individuals from the roadblock site, and they are buried as "unknowns" in the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Maj. Jamie Dobson, a JPAC spokeswoman, said in a May 19 email.
Two soldiers were recovered in 1995 from what appeared to be a temporary grave inadvertently left behind by the Army Graves Registration Service, and in 2012 JPAC received a turn-over of believed-to-be-American remains from the site, she said.
More than 150 Australian servicemen and an unknown number of Japanese were never recovered from the fighting.
"Bottom line, we do not know how many (American) remains are located at Huggins Roadblock and we will not know until we put a shovel in the ground and dig," another JPAC official said in an email.
An official said costly "blade hours" for helicopter insertion made the road rebuild preferable.
The 3.4-mile Sanananda trail is in a flood plain pervaded by several permanent swamps, Dobson said.
"Significant drainage issues and poor maintenance renders the trail virtually impassable six to eight months of the year," Dobson said. "In fact, a JPAC team in 2012 drove it and had to self-recover their vehicle numerous times."
At the time, the team "briefly conducted" some recovery work in the Huggins Roadblock area, and made the recommendation to look at transportation alternatives due to the difficulty the team experienced traveling the unimproved trail, she said.
"Major challenges" include medevac requirements and supporting the logistical needs of a large, complex site using the existing trail and avoiding "exorbitantly priced" helicopter support, Dobson said.
Future JPAC investigative and recovery missions in the Huggins Roadblock and surrounding area, and disinterments at the Manila American Cemetery, are being planned, Dobson said.
"This is a complex site, which will entail JPAC conducting multiple missions in and around this area," she said. "The teams will travel safer, more efficiently, and more effectively due to this project."