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Researchers Work To Identify Bones Of Americans Who Died In Korean War


The U.S. government has been criticized for its effort to recover and identify war dead. People say it takes too long to find remains in the field and the process is too stuck on old science. Now a part of that effort is showing success that once seemed impossible.


Imagine 208 wooden boxes each filled with bones, the remains of Americans who served and died during the Korean War. Researchers at a lab in Hawaii are going through those boxes and finally identifying those men.

SHAPIRO: Jay Price of member station WUNC explains how they are doing it and what it means for the families who've been waiting more than half a century for news.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Life didn't have time to mark Charles Ivey much. The broad-shouldered, strawberry blond soldier from Vance County, N.C., was 21 years old when the Army told his parents he was missing in action in North Korea. That was in 1950. In 1953, they said he was dead, killed in an ambush. In 1955, his mother wrote a letter to the Army a physical description of her son.

GAIL LARUE: He had a perfect set of teeth.

PRICE: That's Gail Larue, Charles's niece reading the letter.

LARUE: He had a slight case of pneumonia from measles when he was 12 years old. The only scar was a chickenpox scar right under...

PRICE: There's something hopeful in her mention of the scar, a scar in flesh, a hope however faint that she thinks he might be found alive. Years stretched into decades. Ivey's mother died, his father, too. And one by one, 10 of his 11 siblings passed away.

The last brother, Harold Ivey, still lives in North Carolina. He's lost a leg to diabetes and is on dialysis. He says his brother was fatalistic about going off to war.

HAROLD IVEY: He said before he got shipped overseas he didn't think he'd be coming back home because it was terrible over there.

PRICE: Then last fall, two soldiers came to Harold Ivey's home to deliver the official news. His brother's remains had been identified.

IVEY: I think everybody was totally amazed that after all this time they had found his body - well, his remains rather. It was a very few bones that was missing.

JENNY JIN: So this is the K208 lab floor.

PRICE: This is the place at Pearl Harbor Hawaii where Charles Ivey's bones ended up along with those of hundreds more troops lost in North Korea. It's called the K208 lab, K for Korea and 208 for the number of boxes North Korea gave the U.S. in the early 1990s. The Koreans said each box held the remains of one American service member, but that wasn't true.

JOHN BYRD: Most often there's remains of many, many different soldiers represented in each of the boxes. And it's not unusual for there to be no two bones from the same soldier in a box.

PRICE: John Byrd is the lead scientist in the military's efforts to identify the remains of American troops lost in battle. Those 208 boxes delivered by North Korea held the bones of about 400 men. There were another 112 boxes of jumbled bones that U.S. teams recovered from mass graves in North Korea. So a total of more than 600 men, their remains all scrambled together.

BYRD: In terms of the size of the project and the condition of the remains, I think it's the hardest case in the world.

PRICE: Now they're solving it .

JIN: I'm Jenny Jin, and I'm a forensic anthropologist.

PRICE: Jin runs the K208 Project.

JIN: So my job is to come up with the best strategy to make an identification because it's really different case-by-case.

PRICE: For years, it was slow going. When the boxes arrived, there were so many bones and so few clues.

JIN: Couldn't do much for about 10 years and then technology advanced, and that's when we saw the potential of using mitochondrial DNA.

PRICE: Mitochondrial DNA - it can often be found in bones, even those buried for decades. It was the tool they needed, a first step towards identifying the men from thousands and thousands of bones. But - and here's the part where you should forget what you've seen about DNA on TV - the mitochondrial kind just isn't very precise.

JIN: My favorite analogy is it works like last names.

PRICE: Last names are helpful to a point. But a lot of people share last names like Smith or Jones. One mitochondrial DNA sequence matches 811 of the thousands missing from the Korean War. The ivory-colored bones of four of those men are laid out on a table in the lab.

JIN: My job is to come up with the four names out of that 811 guys to see which one these guys could be.

PRICE: The mitochondrial DNA narrowed the search then Jin had to sort the bones. That was step two - which left femur matches which right femur or did two bones form a good joint?

JIN: So if you look at this bone, this is an upper arm bone, so it fits like that.

PRICE: After all that sorting, Jin and her team are pretty sure which of these bones on the table belong together.

JIN: We believe this is one person, that's one person, that's another one, that's the fourth individual.

PRICE: But they still have to figure out who the person was. What was his name? Sometimes there are dental records or chest X-rays to check for a match.

JIN: Sometimes if that person was very tall or very short, that gives us a really good clue.

PRICE: Then when possible, there's a third step - test for nuclear DNA. On detective shows that's the kind that can all but ensure an individual identification, but it can be hard to find in the old bones. And when it is there, it's often incomplete.

Still, combined with other evidence, it can seal an identification. In Charles Ivey's case, technicians found nuclear DNA in two leg bones and his jaw and checked his sisters' samples hoping for a useful match, and they got it. A solid match is always a big moment for the scientists.

JIN: That makes my day.

PRICE: And Jin has a personal connection to the men she's trying to identify. American troops helped her family flee North Korea during the war just a month after Charles Ivey vanished there.

JIN: And thanks to them, my grandfather survived, and he came out of North Korea. And here I am today. The least I can do to their families is to identify these guys and send them home.

PRICE: It's slow meticulous work. One time, Jin needed to clear her head. She drove to Wal-Mart and bought some display boards. She propped them up in the lab, and now they're covered with photos of the men whose remains her team has identified.

JIN: These guys are near and dear to me because I know them by bones.

PRICE: In the 10 years after the first boxes arrived, the military identified just one man a year. Last year alone, Jin's team identified 29, including a broad-shouldered soldier from North Carolina.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Charles Ivey, who was killed during the Korean War in 1950.

PRICE: On a sunny morning almost 65 years to the day after Ivey was killed, Gail Larue, his niece and Harold Ivey, his brother, came to Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Today, Cpl. Ivey will continue his final journey home to Henderson, N.C.

IVEY: Well, I'm feeling a little sad, but I'm also feeling happy that he's being returned home, you know, and we can get this past us.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In a few moments, members of the North Carolina Army National Guard...

PRICE: Harold Ivey turned his electric wheelchair toward the elevator to the runway apron. The Delta jet taxied up between two fire trucks that shot an arch of water over it that made a rainbow. The flag-covered casket was unloaded from the aircraft. Harold Ivey and Gail Larue each put a hand on that flag and bowed their heads. They are among the few still alive who care that Charles is home.

There's someone else who cares back in Hawaii. That's where Jenny Jin and the lab is printing up a new batch of photos for her display board. Among them is a picture of a young Charles Ivey. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.