WASHINGTON • Long dead but little forgotten, American soldiers who disappeared across the world during World War II are being reunited with their loved ones in a dogged push to find and bring home their bodies.
From the forests of Germany to the jungles of Papua New Guinea, US experts employed by the Defence POW/MIA Accounting Agency - among them historians, archeologists and forensic experts - are the main sleuths.
When recovery of a body is possible, the Pentagon specialists turn the remains over to an ultra-modern laboratory in Hawaii for identification and then wait for the ultimate reward: bringing the bereaved back together with their long-lost relatives.
Historian Stephen Johnson recalled how a delighted woman, whose father had been found in a German forest, exclaimed: "You gave me back my daddy."
"I think of her when I work on a case," Mr Johnson said.
"You don't stop being a member of the US military because you die."
PRESIDENT GEORGE WASHINGTON, the first head of the US military, whose philosophy is the driving force behind the POW/MIA agency's quest to find and return dead soldiers to their families
The woman, now a mother and grandmother, "had come to peace" after finding out the exact fate of her father, who died when she was 18 months old, Mr Johnson said.
Ms Sandi Jones, who lives in Montana, said she felt immense joy when the agency called her in June last year to say that her uncle had been found 70 years after his plane went down in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.
"I was flabbergasted," the 60-year-old said.
Her uncle, whose photo Ms Jones kept even though her grandparents refused to speak of him, was buried near the family ranch with honours in the presence of US Air Force officials. The agency also gave the family his Masonic ring, which was discovered among the crew and deduced to be his since he was the only member of a Masonic Lodge.
Mr Johnson said the willingness to bring a soldier home at any cost dates back to the birth of the United States. President George Washington, the first head of the US military, thought that "the allegiance of the army to the nation was directly tied to the allegiance of the nation to the army", he said.
"You don't stop being a member of the US military because you die," he added.
It is this logic that has driven the prisoner of war/missing in action agency to take on a project to exhume 388 sailors and marines who were killed aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941.
The agency, which uncovers around 70 bodies a year, has fallen short of Congress' goal of 200 bodies annually.
Meanwhile, private associations are aiding in the effort.
History Flight, whose multi-disciplinary team includes historians, archeologists and soil specialists, is searching for the remains of dozens of marines on the Tarawa Atoll in Kiribati, from the war's Pacific theatre. The quest began in 2007 and has cost nearly US$1.5 million (S$2 million), said History Flight president Mark Noah, who decided to search for the missing planes after becoming interested in lost flights.
"For us, it's a humanitarian issue" said Mr Noah, an airline pilot for 50 years, explaining that many of the children and relatives of the disappeared are still alive.
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, more than 400,000 died. More than 73,000 remain unaccounted for, according to the US Department of Defence.