The Missing in Action (MIA) of World War II
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.