U.S. Army Studies Using DNA to Identify Unknown Soldiers

An American military cemetery south of Rome has a grave containing remains believed to be that of a young army soldier named Melton Futch. But the white marble tombstone only says “here is in honorable glory a comrade in arms known to God alone”.

It is one of more than 6,000 U.S. military graves killed in WWII that the military could not identify with the technology of the time.

Today, of course, there is a DNA analysis. Even in the case of bones that may have deteriorated over decades, increasingly sophisticated techniques are providing a unique genomic profile to confirm the identity of the deceased.

But to work, DNA identification requires a sample from a relative’s blood to make the comparison. And in the case of many who were killed in WWII, the military was unable to locate siblings, parents, children, or even distant cousins. In these cases, despite notable advances, the military finds itself in the same cul-de-sac it ended in the 1940s.

The Defense Ministry therefore plans to try a very different approach: instead of locating relatives and then comparing DNA, military researchers want to use DNA to locate relatives.

It’s a tactic that in recent years has helped elucidate hundreds of homicide cases committed long ago, including the crimes of the serial killer known as the Golden State Killer. Investigators are taking DNA found at crime scenes and uploading it to public DNA data banks, hoping to find matches in family trees that point to a particular individual.

“The technology already exists – we just need to develop public policy to use it,” said Timothy McMahon, director of the DNA identification section of human remains in the military forensic system.

For decades, the Department of Defense has made a global effort to recover and identify the remains of all servicemen who have disappeared since the start of World War II. Initially, the goal was to locate remains that have not yet been recovered from remote air crash sites, sunken ships, jungle trenches overgrown with vegetation, and the like. But with the development of DNA testing, the department is increasingly working with the thousands of bodies that were recovered long ago and buried without being identified.

The use of DNA as done in filed but unclear homicide cases has the potential to solve cases that have frustrated researchers for years, including that of Melton Futch, the poor son of a sawmill worker who lied about his age to enlist. at 16 years old.

On a cold December night in 1944, Futch, then 20, donned a green woolen coat and sneaked up a hill in northern Italy, as part of a group hoping to surprise the enemy . But the Germans were waiting for them.

The sound of machine guns filled the freezing darkness. The Americans backed off. When they regrouped at the foot of the hill, Futch was not one of them.

After the war, residents fell on the bone of a soldier on the hillside, still dressed in his woolen coat, in whose pockets were Futch’s address book and a letter from his wife. . But the identification of the deceased, which seemed simple, soon became more complicated.

For decades, the military began identification work with traditional methods such as measuring bones, studying old dental records, and mimeographed battle reports. Even after the emergence of DNA testing, this method is usually only used at the end of the process, to confirm a provisional identification.

In Futch’s case, army experts could not find a match between the deceased’s teeth and the soldier’s dental record, and although the bone suggested a soldier of good age and of African descent, the The army estimated that it belonged to a man several centimeters tall. bigger. Unable to determine for sure which bone was, the military buried it in the cemetery near Rome.

The case was reopened a few years ago by the Department of Defense agency responsible for locating prisoners of war and persons missing in military action, which attempted to locate a relative of Futch to carry out the DNA comparison. But the soldier had neither brothers nor children. The genealogists could not even find a second cousin.

Agency rules do not allow the exhumation of a corpse if there was at least a 50% chance that the remains would be identified. In Futch’s case, the absence of a DNA sample from a parent prevents the agency from exhuming the bones and testing them.

Critics of the current approach – a long and costly process which, with a budget of over $ 150 million (roughly R $ 840 million), has led to fewer than 200 identifications in a year – believe the government should back down. At the 50% rule, get DNA samples from all the remains of unknown servicemen and start analyzing them in all possible DNA databases.

“For the moment, they are working backwards. The policy is disrupting science, ”commented Ed Huffine, who in the 1990s led testing of remnants of past wars at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab and then spent years working to identify casualties. civilian events that have claimed massive lives.

Huffne said old dental records and other documents from the 1940s that serve as a starting point for today’s military can create problems because in many cases they are full of errors. But starting with DNA quickly produces reliable results. This has already been done in places like Bosnia and Argentina to identify the unknown dead in large numbers.

The military was racially segregated during World War II, and Futch was part of his only black fighting unit, the 92nd Infantry Division, known as the Buffalo Soldiers. The division landed in Naples and advanced north alongside units of white soldiers, until it reached the German fortified defenses known as the Gothic Line in the mountains. Intense fighting left more than 500 dead and hundreds more missing. After the war, 53 bodies were not identified. These remaining 53 were buried in Italy as “unknown”.

In 2014, the Defense Ministry launched a project to uncover the names of the 53, but so far it has only identified a handful, and efforts to locate their families have in many cases failed.

“It’s much more difficult,” said genealogist Megan Smolenyak, who has tracked thousands of family trees for the agency. She said that after a century of migration, relatives of black soldiers are in many cases scattered and may appear little in the documentary trail of voter registration, real estate documents and information published by local newspapers.

“African Americans are simply absent from the records, even though they have been in a community for hundreds of years. They just don’t show up, ”she said.

Futch was the only child of a couple who moved from rural Georgia to Florida to seek work at a sawmill and turpentine factory. They did not own any property and were illiterate, according to census data. Futch’s grandparents were slaves.

In the case of the bone found with Futch’s address book, investigators started with a list of 44 possible names of men killed in that region of Italy. Based on each man’s stature and where he was last seen, they ruled out 36 names. The dental records excluded seven more, leaving only one possibility: Melton Futch. But the case is on hold until the Pentagon is able to locate a relative of Futch or change his rules to allow DNA testing first.

McMahon says the policy change is coming. The idea of ​​identifying unknown soldiers in the same way the police elucidated the Golden State Killer case is so compelling, he said, that “I think we’ll see that happen in the near future. “.

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