Identification of Remains and the POW-MIA Issue (September 1963)

The wars in Southeast Asia ended for the USA in August 1973 by which time over 58,000 Americans had been killed of which around 2,580 were listed as missing in action.  In 1981 President Reagan assigned the highest priority to accounting for Americans missing from the war in Southeast  Asia.  Although relations between the USA and Vietnam remained strained for many years after the US withdrawal from Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese had repatriated some remains even before the US government’s renewed efforts. Improving diplomatic relations between the USA and Vietnam from the late 1980s eventually permitted the return of more remains and joint investigations within Vietnam itself.  In 1987 President Reagan appointed Gen John Vessey as a special POW-MIA emmisary who did much to improve relations with the Vietnamese.  In 1991 the Senate created a Select Committee on POW-MIA affairs further highlighting the growing concern for those who had not yet returned.  In January 1992 the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting office was set up under CINCPAC and based at Hawaii.  This organisation was to undertake field investigations within Southeast Asia in conjuction with Vietnamese and Laotian representatives.  In July 1993 the Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office was established to consolidate the various government agencies involved in POW and MIA personnel issues.  It was the DPMO that drove the POW-MIA recovery effort while the JTF-FA did much of the investigative work.  Remains returned from Vietnam normally go first to the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii for a series of forensic examinations and tests in an effort to ascertain identity.  The state of preservation and the amount of remains recovered is extremely variable and successful identification, even for remains discovered in known circumstances, is by no means assured.  However, developments in mitochondrial DNA testing from the 1980s onwards have had a major impact on this branch of forensic science.  Mitochondrial DNA is extracted from the remains and amplified using a polymerase chain reaction.  The results of DNA sequencing are then matched with those obtained from maternally-related family members of the deceased and if the sequences match then a relationship can be proved.  In many cases the identity of the remains are already suspected and DNA testing serves to provide positive proof.  The Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory at Rockville, Maryland made the first identification of remains from Southeast Asia using DNA testing in 1991 and set about building a database of DNA from family members to aid future investigations.  The more recent advent of nuclear DNA testing has supplemented the original mitochondrial testing.  In the last few years the application of DNA testing has been extended to investigating remains from the Korean War, the Cold War and, most recently, the Second World War.

On 30 January 2015 the Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office was merged with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) and was renamed the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).  As of 11 June 2019 the number of the missing from the war in Southeast Asia had been reduced to 1,588 consisting of 512 from the Army, 493 USAF, 353 Navy, 202 Marine Corps and 28 civilians. A total of 1,058 personnel have been repatriated and identified since 27 January 1973.