To name unknown soldiers, military mulls crime-solving DNA methods
A U.S. military cemetery south of Rome has a grave that is thought to contain a young Army private named Melton Futch. But the white marble marker reads only, “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.”
It is one of about 6,000 graves of U.S. troops killed in World War II whom the military was not able to identify with the technology of the time.
Today, of course, there is DNA analysis. Increasingly sophisticated techniques make it possible to obtain, even from bones that may have deteriorated for decades, a unique genomic profile that can reliably confirm their identity.
But in order to work, DNA identification requires a sample from a blood relative for comparison. And in the cases of many of the WWII dead, the military can find no siblings, no parents, no children, not even distant cousins. In these cases, despite remarkable advances, the Army runs into the same dead ends today that it encountered in the 1940s.
So the Defense Department is considering trying a strikingly different approach: Instead of finding relatives and then matching their DNA, military researchers want to use the DNA to find the relatives.
It is a tactic that has helped solve scores of cold murder cases in recent years, including that of the Golden State Killer. Investigators take DNA found at crime scenes and upload it to public genetic databases in hopes of finding matches in family trees that can point back to one individual.
“The technology is there — we just have to develop the policy to use it,” said Timothy McMahon, who oversees DNA identification of remains for the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System.
The Defense Department has mounted a global effort for decades to recover and identify all service members lost since the onset of WWII. Initially it focused on finding unrecovered remains in remote crash sites, sunken ships, overrun jungle foxholes and similar places. But with the development of DNA testing, it has turned increasingly to the thousands of bodies that were recovered long ago and buried without being identified.
The cold-case DNA approach has the potential to solve cases that have stumped researchers for years, including that of Futch, the poor son of a sawmill worker who had lied about his age to enlist at 16.
One cold night in December 1944, 20-year-old Futch wrapped himself in a green wool overcoat and crept toward a hill in Northern Italy, as part of a raiding party hoping to surprise the enemy. The Germans were waiting.
The tear of machine guns filled the icy darkness. The Americans fell back, and when they regrouped below, Futch was nowhere to be found.
After the war, local people stumbled on the bones of a soldier on the hillside, still wrapped in a weathered wool coat. The pockets held Futch’s address book and a letter from his wife. But what seemed like a straightforward identification soon unraveled.
For decades, the Army has begun with traditional identification methods such as measuring bones, studying old dental charts and leafing through mimeographed battle reports. Even after DNA testing became available, it has typically been used only at the end of the process, to confirm a tentative identification.
In this case, Army grave-registration examiners could not match the teeth of the dead man to the private’s dental records, and while the bones suggested a soldier of the right age and African ancestry, the Army estimated that they belonged to a man who was several inches taller. Unable to be certain whose bones they were, the Army buried them in the cemetery near Rome.
The case was reopened a few years ago by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which tried to find a relative of Futch to compare DNA. But the soldier had no siblings or children. Genealogists could not even find a second cousin.
The agency’s rules do not allow a body to be exhumed unless there is at least a 50% chance that the remains can be identified by doing so. In Futch’s case, the lack of a family DNA sample for comparison prevents the agency from digging up the bones and testing them.
Critics of the current approach — a plodding and costly process that has yielded fewer than 200 identifications a year with a budget exceeding $150 million — say the government should set aside the 50% rule, obtain DNA samples from every unknown’s remains and start running them through every possible DNA database.