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Advanced technology helps families find, bury their relatives killed during wars

For the 2019 financial year, the agency identified 217 leftovers, a record. That was 14 more than in 2018, 34 more than in 2017, and 54 more than in 2016, according to Army Sgt. 1st Class Sean Everette, a spokesman for the DPAA agency.

He said that 120 remains were identified in 2020, but that number was heavily impacted by COVID-19 when investigation and recovery teams were withdrawn from the field.

Approximately 72,000 unidentified veterans are from World War II, followed by 7,667 from the Korean War, 1,589 from Vietnam, 126 from the Cold War, and six from the recent wars.

More than 3,600 military personnel are missing in Ohio, mostly from World War II. Ohio has 3,176 soldiers missing from World War II, 420 from Korea and 75 from Vietnam, including three from the region: Richard Stephenson (Hamilton), David Woods (Franklin) and John Conger II (Lebanon), according to the agency.

In the past two years, at least two local military personnel have been turned over to their families for burial.

The remains of Navy Fireman 3rd Class Willard Irvin Lawson, 25, from Middletown were identified in 2019 after being buried in a mass grave.

Lawson’s niece, Linda Gordon, 72, of Milton, Ky., Said she was grateful that he finally “got home.”

Gordon said the family never knew where Lawson was buried and was told that the sailors were buried in mass graves in three locations.

Lawson was assigned to the battleship USS Oklahoma when it was attacked by Japanese planes on December 7, 1941 when it docked on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. Lawson was one of 429 crew members – 415 sailors and 14 Marines – killed in the attack.

He was buried in the Indiana Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Madison, Indiana, seven miles from where his niece lives on April 27, 2019, she said.

From December 1941 to June 1944, naval personnel found the remains of the deceased crew, which were subsequently interred in the Halawa and Nu’uanu cemeteries.

In September 1947, members of the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) dug the remains of US victims in the two cemeteries and transferred them to the Central Identification Laboratory in Schofield Barracks.

The AGRS then buried the unidentified remains in 46 gravesites in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (NMCP), known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu. In October 1949, a military committee classified those that could not be identified as unrecoverable, including Lawson.

In April 2015, the Assistant Secretary of Defense released a policy memorandum ordering the extermination of unknowns related to the USS Oklahoma, according to the DPAA.

On June 15, 2015, DPAA officials began exhuming the remains for analysis. DPAA scientists used dental and anthropological analysis to identify Lawson’s remains. Scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System helped use mitochondrial DNA analysis.

“When we are working on a loss, we are working in the blind, that is, we do not have any information about that person, in order to avoid biasing our analyzes,” said Dr. Carrie Brown who heads the DPAA USS Oklahoma project. “But once a loss is found, we can access this information, including photos of the service member.”

The remains of 200 previously unknown crew members of the USS Oklahoma have now been turned over to their families for proper burial, and their families have the long-awaited answers.

And last week, after nearly 80 years, the US Navy Radioman 3rd Class Thomas E. Griffith of Dayton was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Griffith, 20, was killed in World War II while assigned to the USS Oklahoma.

By April 2020, mitochondrial DNA analysis played a key role in identifying Griffith’s remains, the agency said. The mitochondria and mitochondrial DNA are passed on from mother to child.

Everette said members of the Griffith family contributed DNA family reference samples to the Navy to help with identification.

“They are all pretty amazing,” he said of the work leading to solutions to these matters.

The Butler County Historical Society displays photos, uniforms, letters, and more to tell the stories of those in the area who served on the 75th anniversary of D-Day in World War II. This is a program and photo from the internment ceremony for F3c Willard Irvin Lawson, a Middletown native who died in Pearl Harbor in 1941. NICK GRAHAM / STAFFSTA

The Butler County Historical Society displays photos, uniforms, letters, and more to tell the stories of those in the area who served on the 75th anniversary of D-Day in World War II. This is a program and photo from the internment ceremony for F3c Willard Irvin Lawson, a Middletown native who died in Pearl Harbor in 1941. NICK GRAHAM / STAFFSTA

Photo credit: Nick Graham

Photo credit: Nick Graham

The staff author Thomas Gnau contributed to this report.

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