Defense Media Network

The Missing in Action (MIA) of World War II

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In 2012, the remains of over 73,000 American military personnel declared missing in action in World War II still have not been recovered. Missing for over six and a half decades, they have now been mostly forgotten. At the end of World War II, there had been a global focus on finding the more than 79,000 unaccounted war dead. The American Graves Registration Service had the task of disinterring temporary military cemeteries, finding isolated graves in foreign lands, and searching for downed airplanes. Once a soldier had been recovered and identified, a proper burial occurred, in accordance with family wishes.  In a six year period, from 1945 to 1951, more than 280,000 war dead were identified and brought home to be reinterred. This formal identification program, which was known as “The Return of the World War II Dead Program,” ended in 1951.

The breakdown by branch of service is as follows: 20,401 are Army Air Force, 16,787 are Army, and 3,085 are Marines. There are 32,569 Navy missing who are classified as lost at sea and not capable of being recovered.

According to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO), after the end of the formal program, the recovery of World War II missing was no longer a high priority. Only 200 of the missing were found and identified from 1951 to 1976, mainly because of reports from citizens who had discovered evidence of American remains in their countries. Between 1976 and 2003, the Army Central Intelligence Lab in Hawaii had the responsibility to recover World War II remains. 346 additional American military were identified in that twenty seven year period. Much of the recovery focus in the late twentieth century years was on the missing from the Vietnam War, even though their numbers were smaller, totaling 2,646 in 1973.

Joint POW/MIA Command

Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command members prepare a transfer case for a repatriation ceremony at the airport in Port Moresby. Three recovery and investigation teams deployed to Papua New Guinea in search of unaccounted-for Americans from World War II. The U.S. command conducts global search, recovery, and laboratory operations to identify unaccounted-for Americans from past conflicts in order to support the Department of Defense’s personnel accounting efforts. DoD photo by Mr. Jason Kaye, U.S. Navy

It was not until 2003 that attention was refocused on the missing of World War II. Finally, a database with their names and other relevant information was created. It took seven more years, with the 2010 passage of the Defense Authorization Act, for the recovery of World War II remains to become a proactive mission with the addition of a field investigation unit being added to the World War II Division of DPMO sixty five years after the end of hostilities.

Of the 73,000 still missing in 2012, 35,000 are listed as potentially recoverable. The breakdown by branch of service is as follows: 20,401 are Army Air Force, 16,787 are Army, and 3,085 are Marines. There are 32,569 Navy missing who are classified as lost at sea and not capable of being recovered.

Witnesses of air crashes or soldier losses in foreign lands and/or local historians with knowledge of World War II information are now elderly or have already died.

There is scant American awareness about the massive number of missing from World War II. Over the past decades, there have been few advocates for that generation of missing warriors, unlike those of the Vietnam generation. Additionally, the resources needed for recovery of missing military from all recent wars are inadequate. A Sept. 6, 2009 New York Times article noted that in the 2009 defense budget of approximately half a trillion dollars, only 55 million dollars were allocated for recovery of remains of the missing.

A long period of time has passed with low priority being given to World War II. Because of that lag, the task of recovery is even more difficult today. Witnesses of air crashes or soldier losses in foreign lands and/or local historians with knowledge of World War II information are now elderly or have already died.  In addition, American recovery teams cannot search in foreign countries without express permission of the governments of those countries. That requirement has hampered recovery work. For example, in Myanmar, formerly Burma, searches for recovery of World War II remains were halted in 2004 because of strained relations between the United States and the repressive government of Myanmar. After America imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command was barred from the country. Recently, bilateral negotiations have begun between the two countries, and there is hope that the recovery mission can resume. It is estimated that 730 missing Americans remains are in Myanmar.

Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command Recovery Team

Gunnery Sgt. Bryon Bebout observes wreckage from a B-24 Liberator during excavation operations in the Madang province. Bebout was part of a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command recovery team that excavated an aircraft crash site searching for nine Americans that remain unaccounted-for from World War II. The mission of JPAC is to achieve the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of the nation’s past conflicts. DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class John M. Hageman, U.S. Navy

Another obstacle to recovery is the difficult and dangerous terrain in some of the countries, especially in the Pacific theater. That area also has been the scene of disturbance of military remains by airplane wreck hunters. Remnants of authentic World War II planes are presently in great demand. Collectors are paying large sums for these parts. Often, wreck hunters discover or become aware of the site of a downed World War II plane and arrive at the wreckage prior to the official government recovery team. The site is then disturbed by those looking for a commercial profit; this act makes it unlikely that military remains can be collected and identified.

The military motto “Leave no man behind” did not have its best application in the case of the missing of World War II.

The military motto “Leave no man behind” did not have its best application in the case of the missing of World War II.

  • Delinda Gagliano Stembler

    My great uncle PFC James Gagliano 128th reg, 32ondinfantry from Champaign Illinois was killed (MIA) in New Guinea during WWll. If his remains are found, there isn’t any family left in Champaign to acknowledge him. My father, Joseph Gagliano, his brother, is 95 and is in a nursing home in Tampa Fl. All the remaining members of James Gagliano’s family now reside in Tampa Fl. If his remains are found, we would like to have him interred near his parents and or other brothers. How would we find out if his remains have been recovered? We want him returned to our family and interned respectfully with his family. Would someone pls contact me regarding this? Also, how or where do we make a request for his remains if this is not the site?
    My grandmother grieved the rest of her life after his death and I believe he should be returned to us. She told us that he was a medic and was killed when a hospital was bombed. Until the day she died, she still believed that he was alive in the jungle in New guinea. In memory of my grandmother, his mother, I would like him put to rest with her.
    Thank you,

  • Our own research shows your great uncle as still missing in action, remains not recovered.

    But I would suggest visiting the website: http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/wwii/

    This is the official DoD Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action website, and it is updated regularly whenever more remains are found.

    You can request any information on his case here: http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/information_requests/

    There are also individual email addresses for each of the services so that you can request information from them as well. The Army’s is here: http://www.dtic.mil/dpmo/contact/

    We hope your great uncle’s remains will soon be recovered. Our sincerest thanks to him for his service, and our condolences to your family.

  • Over the years it has been my great honor to be associated with locating a number of American war dead from World War II in a number of countries. none have been recovered by the US Military.

    This article is one of the more through articles i’ve read on the topic, but still leaves certain misperceptions unchallenged. It suggests these remains are generally inaccessible. The DoD has written to Senate staff that there are approxamately 500 cases of 1 to 5 remains each that have been reported to them but not receovered, and that that number augments by 100 per year. So even in the absence of a proactive US effort to research the dead, there are far more cases reported than investigated each year. In effect the DOD does not attempt to locate the dead as much as it triages which of those that others have reported to them the DOD will investigate. Given the DOD’s history of recovering about 25 WW2 MIA’s per year this triage process implies about 5% of remains reported each year are recovered.

    The Defense Department effort to actively seek remains not reported by others is equally flawed. The DOD prefers to seek the Missing in countries where the US has other “policy benefits” of engagement. Countries such as Burma (referred to here), N Korea, China and Russia have had MIA recovery missions initiated in the name of higher level USG desires to engage in those countries. That is commendable. However the vast majority of MIA’s are in friendly countries,leaiving us in the odd situation that the US prefers to proactivly seek only the missing from inaccessible countries that represent only a relativly small percentage of the total= minimmizing efforts in firendly countries where the remains are accessible.

    We Americans operae under 2 misconcpetions. The first, as discussed in this article, is that the USG proactively seeks the Missing. It does not, and to the extent such an effort is beginning, the mission is unquantified. There are no metrics of success that can be associated to the 35,000 the DOD views as potentially recoverable. The second is that once located, a case will be investigated and the dead recovered. As mentioned above, DoD/Senate records indicate that the vast majority are not, and backlogs are measured in decades. . The issue will not be addressed, and American expectations of our country will not be honored, until we assure families’ their loved ones are to be systematically sought, and, when located recovered. Such an effort will also require an exploration of why it costs $1 Million per case identified.

    Fortunatly this years National Defense Authorization, as proposed by he House, calls for the Comptroller General to audit the Defense Departments hesitant reaction to the 2010 laws requirement that they triple their recvoery rate. Interested parties should contact their Congressmen and Senators with an eye to implementing that law.

    Thinking back on the qick response the country made when ineptitude was found in our treatment of the dead at Arlinngotn and Dover, and the quick response we took when shoddy treatment of veterans at Dover was discovered, I beleive the country will respond once the policie and approaches of the Do on this topic are better understood. Until then we can onl assure the family members involved that whatever the performance of the Military may indicate, their fellow citizens still honor their sacrifice and are committed to the timely recovery of any that can be located.

  • Of course some small bits of remains will be found for some of that number stated, but some of the numbers stated will never be found because of the nature of how they died, which makes it tough on the relatives. There will always be a certain percentage that will be just lost to memory or the affects of nature….sadly…but what we can do is not forget….