A military medical examiner says more identities of men killed in a 1952 military plane crash in Alaska should be released to families as early as this week. This, after months of waiting by the families of those men for remains retrieved in June, 2014, to be examined.
Two Department of Defense agencies say an e-mail that said identities were known in March and not released to families was not accurate.
The wreckage of the C-124 Globemaster was rediscovered in 2012 and efforts to recover remains began the next year. It was announced in June, 2014, that remains recovered in 2013 were identified as belonging to 17 of those men and those were returned to families for burial.
Identities of men whose remains were recovered in 2014 have not been released, however, and families believe based on the time it took to identify those from 2013 that enough time has passed for the 2014 remains to be done.
Two of the men on that plane whose remains have not been identified were from Missouri: Army Technical Sergeant Leonard George Unger of Gerald, in east-central Missouri, and Air Force Airman 3rd Class Wayne Dean Jackson of Downing, in northeast Missouri. A third man, Private Robert Dale Card originally of Kansas, has a brother and other family living near Springfield. Those families have told Missourinet they are anxious to see their loved ones returned home.
Representatives of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System (AFMES) based in Dover, Delaware, and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), tell Missourinet the delay was the result of changes in who was responsible for oversight of those remains.
A change in jurisdiction
Colonel Ladd Tremaine is the Armed Forces Medical Examiner. He said before March 2015, the agency formerly called the Joint POW/MIAA Accounting Command was working to identify those remains when it was found it didn’t have legal jurisdiction because the crash didn’t happen in a zone of conflict.
That jurisdiction, he said, fell first to the State of Alaska, who relinquished it to the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System.
Tremaine says what began then was the cataloging of remains and the military transfer of those and thousands of pages of documentation from Hawaii to Dover. The remains arrived in Dover in August, and then the work that had been done by DPAA had to be translated to the procedures used by AFMES.
“Nobody put a stop to the identification process,” said Tremain.
He said that work is nearly complete with some of what was recovered in 2014, and some families are expected to be notified this week that remains of their loved ones have been identified.
Have identities been withheld during the transition?
A recent report by the Alaska Dispatch News quoted an e-mail from Lieutenant Colonel Holly Slaughter with DPAA’s Public Affairs office saying by March of this year, “new identifications were available, but due to the jurisdictional change, the identifications of the remains were deferred for the Armed Forces Medical Examiner (AFME) to make.”
Doctor John Byrd, Laboratory Director at the DPAA lab in Hawaii, agrees with Tremaine that the identifications were not ready in March as the e-mail stated.
“The DNA results were coming in and our scientists in the lab here were evaluating those. We were very close to being prepared to make identifications at the time that the decision was made that the jurisdiction should be transferred over, and so we had not made identifications yet,” said Byrd.
Frustration and anger for families awaiting word on loved ones
Byrd said despite the transition, DNA testing was always done at the same lab.
That is part of the frustration for Tonja Anderson-Dell, a Florida woman whose grandfather, Airman Isaac W. Anderson Sr., was one of the men on that plane. She has kept in contact with the families of the other men on that plane and has worked with and pressed the military for recovery of remains.
She told Missourinet she believes since the testing was all done in the same location, the length of time it took to identify remains should not have been increased by several months. She also questions why the military did not seek a retraction of the Alaska Dispatch story if the report that identifications had been ready in March, but not released, was incorrect.
Anderson says she’s talked to Tremaine in the past week.
“He’s asked that I give them a chance … to fix it. I’m hoping that giving them a chance to fix it, that they’ll fix this and get it right and get these identifications done for 2014 and moving forward, correctly,” said Anderson.
Anderson and other family members’ concerns are amplified because many members of those families are aging. Some have already died knowing that the plane had been found, but not knowing if his or her loved one had been identified.
Tremaine said getting identifications to families as quickly as possible is, “a paramount concern … but we can’t compromise accuracy.” He added, “We couldn’t start out process until we got physical custody of the remains and we did not get physical custody of the remains until August.”
Byrd says he doesn’t believe anything could have been done differently or more quickly.
“I would not tell a family member that I thought that anything had been dropped or that was lax or should have been done differently,” said Byrd. “We regret that this has taken so long for the families. I know that it was painful enough to have lost their loved ones back in the day and any delay I’m sure is very disheartening, but what I would say is that everybody involved in this is trying to do the best job possible.”
Tremaine said his staff probably should have contacted the families of those men on the flight and explained to them the transition that was taking place and why.
“I should have thought about the families and should have reached out to them and explained that to them,” said Tremaine.
Additional remains from the Alaskan crash site were recovered in June of this year, and Tremaine says identifications from those remains could be released to families as early as February.
Anderson-Dell has reached out several times to members of Congress, including Senator McCaskill, asking them to get involved.