The embattled Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command says it's getting closer to gaining Pentagon approval to disinter and identify for return to families nearly 400 crew members of the battleship USS Oklahoma buried as "unknowns" at Punchbowl cemetery.
Such a step would increase the number of annual identifications at a time when the Hawaii-based command – and the larger military accounting community – have come under scathing criticism for inefficiency, wasteful spending, duplication of effort and petty infighting.
So frustrated was Congress that it mandated several years ago that JPAC produce 200 identifications a year by 2015 – a goal the command said it couldn't make. Last year it produced 60.
The Pentagon announced last month it was overhauling the accounting community and consolidating commands.
John Byrd, director of JPAC's Central Identification Laboratory, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the logjam can be broken in part by exhuming and identifying the Oklahoma casualties from the Dec. 7, 1941, attack. He also defended JPAC's scientific approach to making identifications, which also has come under fire in recent months.
The assertions, both a strategy and a defense, come as JPAC tries to work its way out of a deep hole. The 500-member agency investigates, recovers and identifies missing American war dead.
Moving ahead on the Oklahoma alone could be a game changer for JPAC, and the Pentagon is likely to order the exhumations, Byrd said.
"That's what it appears to me, yes, it's leading towards," Byrd said. "More likely than not, we're going to get the green light."
JPAC projects it would make a few Oklahoma identifications in the first year and more than 100 starting in the second year.
The command could start right away.
"We're ready to coordinate tomorrow if they gave us permission," Byrd said. "I mean, we've already talked to the cemetery. We're all just waiting."
The Navy has opposed the exhumations, saying it preferred to maintain the "sanctity" of the graves as they are, but Byrd said, "I think there's a thinly veiled threat from Congress to legislate it (the exhumations) if we don't go ahead."
Byrd added, "If we get the approval to move on the disinterments that we would like to do, then we can expect a significant increase in IDs simply as a result of that."
Research by Pearl Harbor survivor Ray Emory, who lives in Kahala, led to the 2003 disinterment of one USS Oklahoma casket with commingled remains. Five crew members were identified and sent home to families.
"It would be great if they would just do it," the 92-year-old said of the possibility of disinterring all the Oklahoma casualties. "That would keep that lab busy for a while."
The remains from the Oklahoma are heavily commingled in more than 50 burial containers, and the incomplete sets of bones of more than 100 men were found in that one previously dug-up casket, complicating further identifications and putting the brakes on other exhumations from the ship.
Emory's research also led to the names of 22 other Oklahoma crewmembers buried as "unknowns" at Punchbowl. Last month, a bipartisan group of 15 U.S. senators (none from Hawaii) sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asking that those caskets be exhumed.
"The brave men who died protecting our great nation at Pearl Harbor deserve a final resting place of their families' choosing," the letter said.
Byrd previously said JPAC was waiting to disinter all the Oklahoma casualties and then do the identifications. He also said there are other "unknowns" at Punchbowl that are candidates for identification, including those from the battleships California and West Virginia.
Additionally, about 100 casualties from the Battle of Tarawa in 1943 and nearly 400 service members, mostly soldiers, who died in 1945 as captives on the Japanese "hell ship" Enoura Maru could be candidates for exhumation, he said.
In late March, the Pentagon announced that JPAC, which this year has a budget of about $95 million, would no longer report to U.S. Pacific Command.
Headquartered at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, JPAC will be merged with the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office in Washington, D.C., and parts of the Air Force Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory in San Antonio, Texas, and report to the undersecretary of defense for policy.
"My expectation is that we're going to see Hawaii remain a central part of the overall accounting enterprise," acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michael Lumpkin said last week.
The Pentagon also decided it would put in place medical oversight for all research, establish one case data management system for recoveries, and expand public-private partnerships to recover missing war dead.
As many as 83,000 Americans remain missing. Of those, between 25,000 and 35,000 are estimated to be recoverable.
Criticism of JPAC's lab came from National Public Radio and news organization ProPublica, with the latter reporting the military's "failure to embrace DNA."
The Pentagon identification effort "relegated DNA to only a confirmation tool, rather than using it to lead the process as it is now done in other countries," ProPublica said.
The news organization quoted Lumpkin as saying the DNA-led process is "absolutely something we're going to move toward."
NPR said JPAC "uses historical records and forensic anthropology, basically measuring bones and creating biological profiles, to narrow it down" before turning to DNA, which "puts JPAC at odds with prominent missing persons labs around the world" that use a DNA-led approach.
DNA-led means getting reference samples from families, putting them in a database, and when remains come into a lab, checking them for DNA and a match.
JPAC's Byrd counters that the agency, in fact, uses DNA testing "very aggressively."
"You would have to say, considering that in the laboratory right now, the majority of identifiable remains are from the Korean War, (battleship) Oklahoma and Tarawa, and those are all being pursued with a DNA-first approach," Byrd said. "This lab has for many years employed a DNA-led approach to many of its cases."
But Byrd maintains that one size does not fit all when it comes to identifying missing war dead, and on that point two prominent organizations -- the International Committee of the Red Cross and American Academy of Forensic Sciences -- agree.
"The sequence (of events) depends on how we got the remains," Byrd said.
If it's a jet crash in Southeast Asia with two crew members who are known, "you just simply try to match the remains to whatever records we have -- it could be a DNA sample or it could be dental records," he said.
"In the case of the Korean War, you have a set of remains -- it could be thousands of people, so we then have to narrow it down and we use DNA to do that, and we also use dental records to do that," Byrd said. "So we have available for us, we have DNA family reference samples of Korean War missing -- 90 percent of them in a database."
If there are teeth, they can be searched against a database of dental records.
"And then if we have chest-area bones, particularly the collar bone, we have now a library of antemortem, or before death, chest X-rays for about three-quarters of the Korean War missing. We can search against that," Byrd said.
Part of the problem comes from comparisons of JPAC's approach with DNA-led efforts made in Bosnia and Argentina, Byrd said.
"They have no dental records and they have no medical records for these missing persons," Byrd said. "So they can't follow best practice of utilizing those antemortem records. It's not an option for them. They have no choice but to use a DNA-led approach."
The U.S. military, on the other hand, offers a "very rich record set."
The bones that JPAC deals with are also often 50 to 70 years old, and not all cases yield DNA results, Byrd said.
Some of the Korean War remains were processed by a U.S. Army unit with formaldehyde, damaging the DNA sequence.
Dr. Morris Tidball-Binz, head of forensic services in the assistance division of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland, said in view of the conditions of most of the remains analyzed by JPAC (fragmented, DNA-compromised), and the availability of dental records, "forensic odontology is more often than not undoubtedly the best choice for a primary (scientific) method for their identification."
When using forensic odontology as a primary identifier, "JPAC will always corroborate findings with other methods, ranging from contextual evidence to DNA analysis," he said.
In short, "JPAC is using the best science available to identify and resolve the very complex and challenging cases under their responsibility in order to bring reliable answers to the bereaved," Tidball-Binz said.
Although JPAC has become famous for interdepartmental rivalries that have bogged down the system, Frank Metersky, a former Marine and Korean War veteran who has been active in the MIA issue for 25 years, said the lab needs a lot more remains coming in to make more identifications.
"The lab cannot identify what they don't have," Metersky said. "They keep sending people (into the field), but nothing's coming in."
He added: "There is nothing coming in the door from Vietnam -- that's why the lab has nothing to do. The lab keeps fighting for World War II, Korea and then Vietnam last, because that's where the remains are."