With each passing conflict, both the number of deaths and MIA soldiers has been reduced, though. The majority of MIA cases are from WWII, followed by some 8,000 in the Korean War, 1,600 in Vietnam and about 125 related to the Cold War.
"This is a testament to how differently war is fought, and to our improved record-keeping and post-conflict recovery efforts," says JPAC spokesman Tucker.
Because of its massive scale and poor record-keeping, JPAC does not actively pursue cases from WWI or before, though it does have a few exceptional cases pending identification. One particularly interesting identification effort involves the Monitor, a ship that fought in an important Civil War battle that most American schoolchildren are familiar with. In 1862, the Monitor battled the Merrimack, a Northern frigate that the South had salvaged and renamed the Virginia, in the first clash between ironclad ships in history. Later that year it sank, but in 2002 the gun turret was raised, and JPAC is now working to identify the remains of two crewmembers who were inside when the vessel went down. They are down to two possible identities for each crewman, Tucker says.
Once remains are recovered, JPAC relies on an arsenal of data and what they claim to be the world's largest forensic laboratory, in terms of staff and scope of work, to aid in identification, which can take years. At the facility at the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, they not only investigate leads and research case files, but oversee constantly evolving DNA and other forensic testing on remains. Military files, dental records, biological profiles, DNA samples from family members and the analysis of personal effects and combat gear all come into play.
"There are so many variables," Tucker says. "We never rely on one line of evidence -- there has to be at least two."
One Plane or Two?
In the case of Hunconscious, the team has witness and military reports, which include the post-war assessment of the site made by the American Graves Registration Command (AGRC) in 1948, when they concluded that the site was where Bank Nite Betty had crashed. According to the reports, after days of fog that had grounded all flights, the weather broke and the 397th Bomber Group sent out two B-26 Marauder bomber formations to destroy a bridge in Eller, Germany. On the way, Bank Nite Betty was thought to have been shot down, but most of the other planes reached the target for a successful mission.
On their way back, however, the B-26's met with heavy anti-aircraft fire and enemy planes. In total, 10 aircraft were downed. Hunconscious was long thought to be among them, but it was the only plane shot down that day that was never found.
But, in 2009, a German hobby historian poking around the site found some goggles, parachute pieces, a bone fragment and a piece of fabric with part of a laundry mark that may correspond to one of the Hunconscious crew members.
"Due to the weather on that December day, the fact that 10 planes were lost around the same time, and a lot of confusion on the ground, an assumption was made that took some 70 years for us to begin clearing up," says archaeologist and recovery leader Jesse Stephen.
The case is particularly complicated because if both planes indeed went down together, possibly colliding before they dropped their bomb loads, the explosion was likely tremendous. The shape and size of the crater at the site corresponds to this theory, but JPAC won't know for sure until they have pieced together all of their newfound evidence.
"With big airplane explosions you get very small fragments of people," says forensic anthropologist Hugh Tuller, standing inside the crater. "AGRC gathered up what they could find back then, but often there were things that they didn't find, and we don't know if what we're uncovering now belongs to the known aircraft or a new aircraft."
The team plans to dig until August, when remains and other artifacts will be shipped to their lab on the Hawaiin island of Oahu, and the final phase of analysis will begin. To maintain objectivity, a separate team will take over the scientific testing, which will include attempting to match DNA with samples taken from crewmember's relatives.
"There is an emotional connection to work like this," says archaeologist Stephen. "We have to make sure we remain unbiased in every way."