Advances in expertise and science will allow a record number of men who served and died in the Korean War to be identified this year.
Army Cpl. George P. Grifford, of Grosse Point Farms in Michigan, was the latest to be identified by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) and the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (ADFIL).
Cpl. Grifford was buried Monday in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, a homecoming his aunt described as a “living miracle.”
“It’s the reward for all of the efforts of a very diverse group, lots of people doing lots of different jobs," said Dr. John Byrd, director of the DPAA laboratory in Hawaii. "There is satisfaction bringing that service member back to be buried.”
Dr. Byrd added: “This year, particularly, we are doing very well, already on track for a record number of identifications, close to doubling the number of them. We are on track for more than 40 and will try to reach 50.”
The agency has, or is, working on the remains of some 600 servicemen who died and were buried in North Korea, and were returned either in the early '90s or between 1996 and 2005.
But there are still an estimated 5,300 missing in North Korea, and there has been no further movement on recovering their remains for more than a decade.
“At this time, we do not have any talks scheduled with North Korea to discuss Korean War remains recovery,” said Maj. Natasha Waggoner, of the DPAA.
“As you know, the Department of Defense is committed to achieving the fullest possible accounting for the more than 7,800 U.S. service members from the Korean War, of which we estimate 5,300 are missing in the DPRK,” Mar. Waggoner said.
“DPRK's provocative actions have led us to suspend remains-recovery operations until their actions demonstrate a willingness to live up to its commitments.”
The three remaining Korean War veterans in Congress introduced a resolution Friday calling on the U.S. to resume talks with North Korea to account for the service members still missing from the conflict.
Representatives Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) and Sam Johnson (R-Tex.) introduced House Resolution 799 to coincide with the 66th anniversary of the start of the Korean War on June 25, 1950.
Johnson, a 29-year Air Force veteran who flew combat missions in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, said in a statement, “We owe our fallen brothers in arms every last effort to provide a proper and dignified return to home.” Johnson spent seven years as a POW during the Vietnam War.
Meanwhile, the DPAA, in tandem with the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, continue to work on those remains that were returned in the early '90s, then from 1996 to 2005.
“In the 1990s, they had a very limited capability to make progress because the DNA was nascent,” said Byrd.
“It was difficult to make DNA out of old bones as it was just ramping up as a new technology.”
But beginning around 2000, progress started to be made, while the call went out to relatives of those missing to send DNA samples for processing.
“It really was not until 2010 that we had enough DNA to really start making progress. Currently we have identified 300, approximately,” Byrd said.
Advances in DNA technology, and the increased expertise of those working for the DPAA and at ADFIL, is allowing samples to be processed faster and with greater success, even as scientists and other staff work on smaller, more degraded amounts.
Next-generation DNA will allow the agency to go back and retest samples that previously failed to produce a result.
In addition to those returned in more recent years, the National Memorial Cemetery in Hawaii, called the Punchbowl, contains the remains of thousands of unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War.
Dr. Byrd said 867 were brought back after the Korean War, but the science was not available to identify them. The DPAA has disinterred over 100 individuals, and intends to look at all 867 within the next few years. The 300 total identified include the remains of those returned more recently, and those interred in the Punchbowl.
Cpl. Grifford, 20, died in a POW camp in 1951, according to the Chinese, and was one whose remains were returned shortly after the war.
"I wasn't looking for him, but he found me anyway," Grifford’s 72-year-old aunt, Toni Murphy, told the Detroit Free Press. "I'm so grateful he came in my lifetime, at least someone remembers. This is a living miracle to me.”
In total, 83,000 Americans are either missing or their remains are interred at the Punchbowl but have not been identified. The vast majority are from World War II, but also include 1,600 missing following the Vietnam War.