By Robert Widener
Among America’s WWI doughboys in the Second Battle of the Marne was Pvt.
Francis Lupo of Cincinnati. The 23-year-old, along with fellow soldiers
of E Co., 18th Inf., 1st Inf. Div., engaged the Germans in fighting near
the town of Soissons, France. On July 18, 1918, at the end of that day’s
fighting, Lupo was reported missing. No witness report or circumstances
of his loss appear in any records. Like other soldiers in that battle,
he had just simply vanished.
Thirty-six years later and halfway around the world, a Civil Air
Transport C-119 piloted by two Americans, James B. McGovern and Wallace
A. Buford, attempted to resupply a besieged French garrison during the
battle of Dien Bien Phu in the French-Indochina War.
On May 6, 1954, flak from a Viet Minh shell crippled the plane. McGovern
struggled to keep the aircraft aloft, but after 40 minutes, it crashed
short of an emergency landing strip near Ban Sot, Laos. Only two of the
five crew men (French) survived the fiery impact. Feared dead, McGovern
and Buford were among America’s first MIAs in Southeast Asia.
These two seemingly unconnected events found the spotlight in 2006 when
the Central Identification Lab (CIL) at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting
Command (JPAC) in Hawaii, identified the remains of both Lupo and
McGovern. (Buford’s remains have yet to be discovered.) The cases
brought much-heralded attention to JPAC’s efforts in recovering remains
and identifying America’s missing in action.
Lupo, whose remains were discovered in 2003, became the first MIA from
WWI to be identified. McGovern’s identification involved a complex DNA
procedure. His remains were found in 2002.
The solution in providing the final chapter to these cases, and so many
more of the 88,000 still missing from America’s wars, lies along many
lines of cooperation between Department of Defense (DoD) offices, the
service branches and especially, the dedicated personnel behind the
doors at JPAC, where the motto “Until They Are Home” truly resides in
each person’s heart.
JPAC History and Structure
Given the high-tech world we live in today, the recovery and
identification work at JPAC knows few boundaries. It owes its present
state, though, to an evolution through the years from earlier agencies
that had one common quest—return America’s missing heroes to their
families. A quick review of its transformation also shows the relentless
support a deeply dedicated nation has put toward that goal.
At the end of the Vietnam War in January 1973, provisions in the Paris
Peace Accords led to the creation of the Joint Casualty Resolution
Center (JCRC). Headquartered in Thailand, it searched for and recovered
remains of Americans missing in action. JCRC worked in concert with the
newly formed Central Identification Laboratory, Thailand (CIL-THAI), a
relocated U.S. mortuary that had handled the remains and identification
of Americans killed during the war.
By 1976, a downsizing of U.S. forces in Thailand classified CIL-THAI and
JCRC personnel as military, rather than humanitarian. As a result, the
operations were forced to relocate. Hawaii was chosen as the new home,
and the lab name thus changed to CILHI. At the same time, CILHI’s
mission was broadened to include the identification of service members
killed in Korea, WWII and recent operations.
JCRC continued operation until 1992 when it became Joint Task Force-Full
Accounting (JTF-FA). The change was partly due to an increased interest
from the U.S. government as well as the public in MIA recovery. More
important, though, Southeast Asian countries were showing an increased
willingness to allow access to records, files and witnesses concerning
Finally, in 2002, DoD concluded that POW/MIA accounting efforts would
best be served by combining JTF-FA and CILHI. On Oct. 1, 2003, the two
agencies merged and were renamed JPAC.
Brig. Gen. Michael Flowers, a 28-year Army veteran, directs JPAC’s 425
military and civilian personnel based at Hickam Air Base and nearby Camp
H.M. Smith in Hawaii. Assisting Flowers is Deputy Commander Johnie Webb,
a former commander of CILHI from 1982-1993. Webb brings a long history
of involvement in POW/MIA accounting, beginning in 1975 as a
search-and-recovery team leader.
The overall structure of JPAC is divided into four sections: command and
support, search and recovery operations, casualty data analysis and the
laboratory. Staff and personnel are a mixture of service members from
the different branches, and professional civilians who provide expertise
in crucial areas, such as dentistry, anthropology and historical
According to Webb, the most important change through the years has been
replacing morticians with scientists in the lab.
“When I originally took command, the holdover from the Vietnam War was
using morticians to make the identifications,” said Webb. “We needed to
bring key scientific staff on board to do the work that needed to be
Currently, the lab has 23 anthropologists, four archeologists and three
dentists on staff.
JPAC’s operations extend overseas, as well. It maintains three
detachments in Southeast Asia to assist with command, logistics and
valuable in-country support during field operations. These are located
in Bangkok, Thailand; Hanoi, Vietnam; and Vientiane, Laos. A fourth
detachment at Camp H.M. Smith is responsible for recovery team personnel
when they’re not deployed.
Operating under U.S. Pacific Command, JPAC depends on direct assistance
from other DoD offices to complete its mission.
The Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) in
Washington, D.C., is responsible for policy and oversight of U.S.
POW/MIA efforts. DPMO communicates with other U.S. agencies and the
public, especially families, on overall progress. In addition to other
planning and research, it also coordinates talks with countries where
missions are proposed, helping to pave the way for JPAC to work out
The Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) in Rockville,
Md., conducts DNA analysis. CIL sends samples from skeletal remains to
AFDIL for DNA processing, then evaluates the results.
The Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory (LSEL) at Brooks Air Base in
Texas analyzes some of the artifacts recovered during field operations.
Its experts can tell, for example, from what plane a piece of glass may
have come, or determine the origin of a patch of fabric.
Also playing an essential role are the military service branches.
Soldiers, Marines, airmen and Navy personnel, most with combat
experience and many who are recently from the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, can volunteer for JPAC as one of their rotated duty
stations. The mixture of the different branches creates a joint military
force, giving the service members a unique opportunity to work as a
The casualty offices at the branches also work closely with JPAC, DPMO
and AFDIL, but primarily serve as a liaison to families of the missing.
They provide updated information on particular missions, serve as
conduits to and from other agencies and coordinate DNA family reference
As the years have progressed, so have the procedures and communication
roles between the agencies and JPAC. The resulting finely honed system
enables it to operate smoothly in not only resolving the fate of the
missing, but more important, giving closure to the families who have
waited so long for answers.
When JPAC was formed in 2003, the transition plan dictated that a
certain number of joint field activities (JFA) be conducted each year.
The missions are divided between Southeast Asia––which includes Vietnam,
Laos, Cambodia and Thailand––and worldwide, which sends teams to such
places as Europe, South Korea, China and even New Guinea.
Southeast Asia missions are mainly focused on the Vietnam War, while
those worldwide cover losses that occurred during WWI, WWII, Korea, the
Cold War and other operations. JPAC follows a 10-5-10 formula in
breaking down the JFAs: 10 in Southeast Asia, 5 in Korea and 10
Each JFA contains multiple search-and-recovery operations that can last
30-45 days each. For instance, in fiscal year 2007, which began on Oct.
1, 2006, one JFA in Southeast Asia includes four recovery, one
investigative, one underwater search and one combination
Flowers follows established policy and prioritizes missions by the
following criteria, not necessarily in this order:
• Last known alive: This refers to the point that an MIA was last seen
• Existing site: Recovery operations sometimes require more than one
visit, or remains were found at the end of an operation.
• Developments in countries: A nation may be planning construction in an
area where MIAs may be located.
• Weather: Seasonal patterns can hamper a team’s field operation,
resulting in the loss of precious time.
• Equilateral turnovers: Artifacts or bones are discovered and turned
over by a country.
• Host nation limitations: Some countries have a cap on the number of
• Best case for a specific time frame.
JPAC determines which MIA cases ultimately become missions. For
instance, when an investigation team returns from the field, an
executive decision board that includes Flowers, deputy commanders and
other key JPAC personnel determines if the findings warrant a recovery
operation. An analyst or historian from the casualty data section also
weighs in with records research. After all the evidence is evaluated,
Flowers makes a final decision on whether to proceed with a recovery.
An example of how a proposed development in another country can change
the priority of a particular case recently occurred after a trip to
South Korea by Webb.
“During one of our underwater investigations, we found out that they
were getting ready to develop the harbor area in 2009,” Webb said. “So,
we have two years to get in and complete that recovery.”
Flowers pointed out that “no one case is more important than any other,”
and they follow a strict adherence to the points above.
“We get congressional inquiries, but we don’t move people to the head of
the line because their senator writes to say ‘I’m interested,’” he
stressed. “We tell them exactly what we told the family—that this is
where they’re at in the line, and we’re working on it.”
And that list grows shorter each year—the lab now averages two
identifications each week, or 100 per year.
Meeting with Other Countries
Negotiations with host nations about upcoming missions are an enormous
diplomatic undertaking coordinated by DPMO. These meetings occur one to
three times annually and center on investigations and recoveries planned
in the country. When working with Southeast Asian countries, government
officials are involved, whereas worldwide operations deal more with
Usual participants in the meetings include staff from DPMO and a DoD
intelligence agency, as well as JPAC’s commanding general. A
representative from an overseas detachment, if the mission falls within
its domain, and a U.S. ambassador also sit in on the discussions.
According to Larry Greer, director of public affairs at DPMO, the talks
are “generally a give-and-take event, where both sides are working
toward the same goal—getting our teams out into the field with the full
support of the nation.”
Once the groundwork has been laid, JPAC takes control of the meeting.
Specific cases are discussed as well as future activities. Difficulties
in terrain, communications and inquiries about access to restricted
areas are normal topics. In addition, host nations want to know the
length of the mission, the number of personnel involved and the type of
equipment and vehicles to be used. The talks also cover how much local
workers and landowners will be paid, and what compensation will be given
to local officials assigned to the site.
Flowers says “they work well with all countries” on these matters, and
“none have kept them from doing missions.” He adds that Cambodia has
been the easiest country to work with, while Vietnam’s rules and
regulations tend to complicate matters.
(North Korea did head the “most difficult” list, but missions there have
been suspended since spring 2005 over concern for the teams’ safety.)
In Vietnam, for example, an underwater investigation was proposed, but
Vietnamese officials objected to U.S. flagships within their waters.
Similarly, missions for the longest time have been barred in the western
highlands where the Vietnamese cited problems in the area. However, last
year, one mission was allowed to be carried out, and JPAC has permission
to return again this year.
VFW Averts Funding Crisis
As if courting Communist countries were not enough, the missions were
threatened from another angle. In fiscal year 2006, part of the crucial
funding for JPAC, which falls under U.S. Pacific Command’s budget, was
VFW stepped forward and demanded that JPAC be fully funded. According to
Michael Wysong, VFW’s national security and foreign affairs director,
“VFW launched this initiative and led the charge. A couple of other
groups weighed in, but not to the extent that VFW did.”
Though $3.6 million was restored to offset the shortfall, it was too
late to reschedule some of the missions.
At the time, Bob Wallace, executive director of VFW’s Washington Office,
said, “It was unconscionable that during a time when our service men and
women are risking all to protect our freedoms, our government does not
see fit to fund a program to find our prisoners of war or those missing
Says Wysong, “As a result of our efforts last year, Congress, in the FY
’07 Defense budget, asked to see where and how all organizations
involved in POW/MIA issues are budgeting and spending their allotted
VFW further calls for JPAC’s budget to be a dedicated single-line item
in the larger Defense budget.
“We appreciate VFW’s support as veterans,” Flowers said. “We work very
hard to find and bring their comrades home. This is a relationship built
on trust, and we try our best to live up to it.”
Continuing the Effort
Working a four- to five-year plan, Flowers looks for ways to keep the
operations as efficient as possible.
Two aspects of recovery operations, for example, were adjusted to reduce
the number of visits to a site, yet still yield reliable results. A
scientific testing stage in the field was streamlined. And, missions in
Vietnam were lengthened from 30 to 45 days, allowing teams ample time at
Overall, progress is proceeding well. Recoveries in Cambodia have
reached a point where nine sites are ready for excavation. Flowers says
they should be finished there in two years with the cases they know of
now, cautioning that new evidence could change that.
In addition to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, missions through September
2007 are being conducted in New Guinea, Palau, China, Thailand, South
Korea and Europe.
For Flowers, the overall success of the missions carries a huge
responsibility—one that is most evident when an identification is made
and he comes face-to-face with the family.
“Something that you’re not prepared for when you come here is the
families, the emotions,” he said. “There is nothing more rewarding to us
than when we do make an identification, and the family comes here to
pick up the remains. We get to talk to them and see the impact that we
made on them.”
JPAC has one core goal—bring home those who remained behind on foreign
soil so they can be reunited with their families. With its committed
staff and personnel working alongside U.S. agencies and the military
service branches, and adequate funding in place, that goal is reached
time after time.
McGovern’s nephew, James McGovern III, explained it best to The
Associated Press: “All those years were enough of a separation. It’s
closure for my family, and a great feeling.”
Part II (June): Casualty Data Analysis: Where Cases Begin
Editor’s note: The author visited JPAC offices and the Central
Identification Laboratory in December to get a firsthand view of