US’ ‘unknown’ POWs were buried in a Japan mass grave 80 years ago. Can an American forensics team finally identify them?

“We know where the ‘unknowns’ are, but our work now is to determine who they are,” she told This Week in Asia.

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Wetherby said her work is less field-based and more focused on combing through records to build up an unidentified individual’s “X-file”, listing physical details, dental records and any other key data that can then be linked to scientific data, such as DNA, to provide an identification.

The task has been made significantly more difficult for the Tokyo Prison Fire “unknowns”, Wetherby said, as the remains were all dumped in a mass grave, meaning there was extensive co-mingling of the bones, which have also been badly degraded by the fire.

Yet there has been progress, she said, and she remains hopeful that names will finally be put to many of the remains.

The 62 men were primarily from the crews of B-29 Superfortress bombers that were shot down in attacks across Japan during the later years of the war in the Pacific. USAAF crew were often transported to Tokyo, where Japan would charge them with war crimes.

On the night of May 25 and 26, 1945, more than 500 B-29s carried out one of the largest air raids against Tokyo of the entire war, dropping around 4,000 tonnes of bombs that ignited a firestorm, burning down nearly 57 sq km of the city.

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The blaze consumed residential, industrial and government districts and was spread by strong winds into Shibuya Ward in western Tokyo, where the Tokyo Military Prison was.

A war crimes trial after Japan’s surrender looked into the Tokyo prison case in some detail, with eyewitnesses recounting that the 464 Japanese prisoners held at the facility were released to fight the initial small blazes that had broken out. By midnight, however, the wind was carrying the towering flames over the concrete outer walls.

The DPAA’s research showed that the prison guards realised that they would not be able to control the fire, and a decision was taken to start releasing some of the POWs.

In the trial, Japanese administrators justified the delay in their decision to release the prisoners by saying they were concerned that civilians might take matters into their own hands and attack and kill the airmen, as had happened elsewhere in Japan to shot-down aircrew.

With the blaze worsening, only around 17 POWs were released before the guards fled. Those that were not freed died in their cells, while the court heard that those who had been set free were then executed, although that has not been confirmed from the remains. There were no US survivors.

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After Japan’s surrender, teams from the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) recovered the remains of US service personnel from throughout the Pacific theatre. They arrived at the Tokyo Military Prison on February 16, 1946, and over the next week disinterred the remains.

The AGRS identified 25 sets of remains by 1950, with one set identified as Japanese and returned to the Japanese authorities.

The remaining bodies were eventually interred as “unknown” in the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines, Wetherby said.

Today, the task of assessing the remains falls to the DPAA’s Tokyo Prison Fire Project, led by forensic anthropologist Kristen Grow. After being disinterred in 2022, the remains were transported to the agency’s facility at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.

“When the remains arrived, they were extremely co-mingled,” Grow said.

“For the Tokyo Prison Fire cases, there are two distinct steps to progressing a case towards getting an identification. The focus is assessing commingling – segregating remains into discrete individuals – followed by research into potential casualty matches for each of those individuals.”

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DNA sampling helps the scientists “build out” individuals, she said. Once the anthropologists segregate a set of remains, they conduct a biological profile, which includes assessing the biological sex, age, ancestry, stature and indicators of trauma.

This data, in addition to the DNA and dental analysis, is then compared to the records of the service members in the hope the remains can be narrowed to a name.

The researchers have made “significant progress” with the remains, Grow said, although no official statement has been released on the bodies that have been identified.

That progress gives hope to Timala Melancon, 70, that the remains of her uncle, Technical Sergeant Jim Verhines, might be among those identified in the DPAA laboratory.

“Jim enlisted the day after the attack on Pearl Harbour and was just 23 years old when he died,” she said.

Technical Sergeant Jim Verhines, one of the POWs believed to have been killed in the Tokyo Military Prison fire. Photo: Handout

The family believes that Verhines and his fellow airmen had been shot shortly after parachuting into Japan but says their actual fate, which they only learned in 2013, was “much worse”.

“To have him back would be like closing a door. It would give us all a sense of peace if we could bring him back, as we have all felt for so long that we are not complete. I hope we are able to do that in my lifetime because it would be a wonderful homecoming,” Melancon said.

For both Grow and Wetherby, the task of putting names to these men’s remains is deeply personal.

“It is important to keep the promise that was made to our service members that we would continue to look for them and to bring them home, no matter how long that takes, and to provide answers to their families about what happened to them,” Grow said.

Wetherby agreed that it was for the families

“I often meet with the families to give updates on progress throughout the year, and each time it really drives home how much grief is still there for these families,” she said.

“With World War II, it is rare now for anyone to be alive who remembers a family member who died, but the trauma of that unresolved loss carries through the generations.”

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