Air Force Historical Research Agency Aids Service Member Recovery Efforts

by Kelly Deichert
Air University Public Affairs

9/2/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- When a World War II P-38 was found in New Guinea, no one knew who had been on board, their unit or the date of the crash. A box of records in the stacks of Air Force Historical Research Agency, or HRA, may provide the answers.

Following the motto "until they are home," the Joint POW/MIA Accountability Command, or JPAC, seeks to find downed aircraft, recover and identify service members' remains, and return them to their families.

"It is the only military unit in (Department of Defense) tasked to investigate, locate, recover and identify our prisoners of war and missing in action from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Cold War and the first Gulf War," said Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Tom, JPAC commander, during a visit to Maxwell in August. "It's a very noble and humbling mission."

His visit included a tour of the research facility, helping the commander learn more about the documents available and how the two agencies can work together.

For more than 10 years, the archivists have provided JPAC with guidance and records to help the recovery efforts. The HRA has histories on almost every Air Force related squadron, group, wing and division from 1940 to the present.

The mission in Southwest Asia is challenging for JPAC teams. Unit reports may show a plane went down on a certain date, but sometimes its precise location is unknown, the site is too remote or the plane crashed into the ocean.

If the unit has no verification someone survived, service members were presumed killed in action, said Archie DiFante, an HRA archivist. "World War II has the highest number of unrecorded missing in action in any of our modern conflicts," he said.

"We know we have missing who never come back from foreign conflicts," Tom said. This is why efforts continue today to find records relating to downed planes, find the crash sites and recover and identify the remains.

Tom expressed his appreciation to the Air Force archivists for their support and cooperation. "This is where it starts," Tom said. "Without records, we don't know where to start."

When a JPAC team visited HRA in July, the two groups spent two weeks sifting through records, hoping to learn more about who was onboard the P-38. Since JPAC researchers had a possible serial number for the plane, they used HRA records and archivist expertise to narrow down a time frame for the crash.

The two groups researched which units flew P-38s over New Guinea and believe the plane was part of the 431st Fighter Squadron. From there they went through the histories looking for references to specific combat losses and concluded it probably went down in August 1943.

"We had to go back to original unit histories, an elementary level, to see if anything that lists specific losses on specific days might match a possible site," DiFante said.

JPAC will continue attempts to identify the remains, possibly through DNA analysis, and hope to return the service members to their families.

The Joint POW/MIA Accountability Command has been in place since 2003 and currently comprises 410 personnel from all branches. The mission began in 1973 as the Central Identification Library in Thailand, focusing on missing American service members in Southeast Asia.

Today, JPAC searches around the world for remains. Personnel look through documents, and investigative teams talk to witnesses. "We see if there is a likelihood this is a spot we can find missing Americans," Tom said.

A recovery team, accompanied by an archeologist or anthropologist, scientifically excavates the area and brings the remains to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, for identification.

More than 1,800 Americans have been identified, averaging one every four days.

Part of JPAC's mission is closure. "To see relief on faces of widows, or sons, or daughters is very rewarding," Tom said.