Memorial Day: Why America scours the earth for its fallen servicemembers
From Stripes, where there is much more:
The fallen navigator waited until dawn to crawl from the jungle. His back was broken, his jaw ripped open by shrapnel. There was a bullet hole in his left leg.
In the night, Lt. Jose Holguin had parachuted from a burning B-17. Painted on its nose were a scantily clad woman and the words “Naughty but Nice.” Now the bomber lay before him in pieces.
He hobbled to the plane’s mid-section, where he saw the charred, mangled bodies of two of his nine comrades. He fired his pistol twice, signaling the crew to rendezvous. He heard nothing in return.
This is when he made his hardest decision — to flee — and his most important promise, one as old as war. “I told the men that I couldn’t take them with me,” he would recall. “But I would be back to take care of them.”
That was June 26, 1943, on an island in the Southwest Pacific, at the height of World War II. Many vows like Holguin’s were uttered in the war. But when it ended, 79,000 Americans were missing and presumed dead. Half were virtually unrecoverable — lost to the deepest oceans, highest mountains or thickest jungles.
So when the war ended in 1945, Americans mostly got on with living. The dead rested where they fell.
Today, that’s changing. No nation has ever tried so hard to recover so many remains from battlefields so distant and so old. This is manifest each Memorial Day at new grave sites bearing remains discovered or identified over the past 12 months. Since Memorial Day 2011, the bodies of 79 servicemen from wars past have been accounted for, including 20 from World War II.
The military’s “full accounting mission,” originally focused on Vietnam, is expanding. As many World War II cases have been investigated over the past two years as in the six previous, according to the POW/MIA Accounting Command. Last year, the war was the focus of a third of the military’s 63 recovery expeditions.
Only the United States has the technology, the personnel (a force of about 600) and the money for such a task. Recovering a single set of remains can involve everything from ground-penetrating radar to hand-panning mud, and easily cost a million dollars.
Why such an expensive, virtually open-ended commitment?
For one thing, “we say we never leave a fallen comrade” — living or dead, says Irving Smith, a former Army Ranger officer. Recovering their own remains is part of the ethos that binds units of warriors.
God bless America.
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