When troops’ remains are identified from long-ago wars, it’s getting harder to find family members

Scientific advances have allowed the Army to identify about 200 sets of remains each year – dating back to World War II. But the passage of time has complicated the process of finding families to accept the remains.

By Jay Price, American Homefront ProjectJune 10, 2024 10:30 am

From the American Homefront Project:

By the early 1970s, the POW/MIA movement had convinced the federal government to go to extraordinary lengths to hunt for remains of Vietnam War troops missing in action and return them to grieving families.

Half a century later, the complex machinery assembled for that mission — cutting edge labs, teams of motivated forensics and DNA experts, archaeologists, historians, and mortuary affairs case officers — has almost entirely changed who it’s bringing home … and who it’s bringing them home to.

Now, typical cases are like that of Staff Sgt. Robert J. Ferris Jr.

Ferris was a 20-year-old turret gunner in an Army Air Forces B-17 bomber when it was shot down over France on December 20, 1942. He was listed as missing in action.

With the help of historical records, his remains were retrieved from a cemetery in France in 2019. After an elaborate forensic process, including DNA matching, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) formally identified his remains last September.

Then an Army mortuary affairs specialist called Barbara Weiss of New Bern, N.C. trying to identify the official next of kin.

“Everybody they thought of has passed,” said Weiss, who is Ferris’s niece and was born years after he died.

The mortuary affairs specialist asked if her grandparents or her aunt were still alive.

“And they were asking about my uncle Al,” she said. “He was gone. Then they said ‘Burtress.’ I said, ‘That’s my mother.’ ‘Can we talk to her?’ And I said she’s passed, too.”

“Then I said, ‘I’m the only one … I’m the next of kin,” Weiss said.

Weiss agreed to accept her uncle’s remains. She helped Army officials arrange a military funeral and graveside service.

William “Shorty” Cox is a senior mortuary affairs specialist, one of four with the Army’s Past Conflict Repatriations Branch. They contact the families when a long-missing soldier is identified, then help guide the case until the burial is complete.

In 14 years at the job, Cox has seen a shift away from Vietnam War-era cases.

The Defense Department’s goal is to make at least 200 identifications a year from previous conflicts dating back to World War II. But the number of recoverable remains from the Vietnam War has dwindled to perhaps a few hundred. Meanwhile tens of thousands are possible from earlier conflicts.

So far this year, the DPAA has made identifications in 55 cases across all services from World War II, 16 from the Korean War, and just one from the Vietnam War.

Because the wars are further back in history, that has changed the process Cox and his colleagues use to reach out to family members.

“I’d say about 60 to 70 percent the ones we’re dealing with now never knew the soldier,” he said. “The rule is getting more to where you’re dealing with great nieces and great nephews and cousins.”

In the vast majority of cases, he said, the first family member they reach is willing to serve as the formal next of kin. It helps that the military covers all the costs.

But more and more often now, relatives are so distant and feel so little connection to the dead soldier they don’t want to bother.

“I’ve got a case right now where I’ve gone through 16 family members, and I can’t get a single one of them willing to take up the mantle to bury the soldier,” Cox said. “They don’t know them, they’re busy. And they’re just not doing it. I’m working with my last family member now.”

If that one says no, the soldier will get an “Army Assumed Burial,” meaning the Army stands in for the family, making decisions on where and how he’ll be buried.

That happened last fall, when no family members could be found for the funeral of Sgt. Bernard J. Sweeney Jr., who also died in World War II.

There were two alive when the military did DNA testing of family members to match with any recovered remains. Both passed away prior to Sweeney’s identification.

Still, the soldier had a well-attended funeral. The Army made arrangements with a funeral home on Long Island, N.Y., and droves of townsfolk, members of veteran groups, first responders, and Boy Scouts turned out.

“The funeral home we used was a mile away from the cemetery, and the funeral procession was so long, it took them an hour to get to the cemetery,” Cox said. “There were 1000 people that showed up for the funeral.”

Sarah Wagner, a professor of anthropology at George Washington University says even if no immediate family is alive, the value of fully accounting for the missing and bringing them home is still real.

“There’s this moment at a homecoming and a memorial or burial where the national and a local are entwined in this project of belonging,” said Wagner, the author of What Remains: Bringing America’s Missing Home from the Vietnam War.

The national includes making it clear to current service members the country values their service. The service also means something to those who attend, as in one memorial she went to at Arlington National Cemetery, where no one knew the dead service member.

“There wasn’t a dry eye from what I could tell, and people felt incredibly moved,” she said. “These recovery efforts, when they finally bring someone home and there isn’t the immediate family member, there’s still a sense that there’s an obligation on the communal side and the familial side to care for that person.”

Wagner said it’s still possible for people to care about the service member they didn’t know and feel involved in helping stitch society together more tightly.

“Maybe they have a recollection of someone else’s grief, or they were told of their grandfather’s grief,” she said. “There is a sense of this vast military enterprise that’s gone to the ends of the earth, and it’s like scrambled all over a mountainside and has come up with this tooth and sent it home.”

Barbara Weiss compiled a display of family photos for the funeral of her uncle, Staff Sgt. Robert J. Ferris Jr., who died in World War II. The Army identified his remains in 2023 and returned them to the family in New Bern, N.C.
Jay Price / American Homefront

Joining Weiss and a few other family members at Ferris’ burial service were dozens of people who never knew the deceased, including many members of local chapters of veterans groups.

Rick Miller, a past president of the local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter, said he has attended about 30 such ceremonies involving troops and veterans he didn’t know.

“I feel the military, regardless how far back, is a family that we’re all related in serving our country,” he said. “I feel honored to come to these things.”

Also attending were more than two dozen members of the Patriot Guard Riders, a national group that provides motorcycle escorts to fallen service members, veterans, and first responders.

George Hayden was one. He said the duty was all the more important when there’s little or no family left.

“We come, and we become their families,” he said.

Weiss, the fallen soldier’s niece, cheerfully stepped into her unexpected role and helped organize things like displays at the funeral home of faded photos of Ferris as a child, teenager, and soldier.

The photos were passed down to her, just like her responsibility to Ferris, from one relative to the next.

She says the Army’s carefully-orchestrated process turned her into something more like what people usually think of as next of kin.

“I did not know him, but now I do know him,” she said after the graveside service, sitting beside Ferris’ casket, holding in her lap the flag that had draped it. “My grandmother was such a loving person. And so were my aunts and my other uncle. And so he has to be a part of that, that has trickled down the line of family, so he’s got to be all that, too.”

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.