As Memorial Day approaches, families will plan to gather at consecrated grounds— such as Arlington National Military Cemetery in Virginia. In California, they will visit any one of the 14 national or military cemeteries up and down the state, including CalVet’s cemeteries at Igo, Yountville, and Seaside.
It is the day each year where we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice while defending the United States and its Constitution.
In one respect, many of those family members might consider themselves to be fortunate. At least they know the fate of their loved ones. There is a grave or columbaria niche that offers a physical connection to accompany the spiritual one.
For the families of more than 81,500 American servicemen and women, however, there is no such comfort.
Their kin represent the soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen who remain missing collectively from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Gulf Wars, and others.
More than 72,000—including 22 women—still remain unaccounted for from World War II alone. There are still missing 7,503 from Korea, 1,579 from Vietnam, and 131 from the Cold War and Gulf Wars combined.
Three-quarters of those losses are from the Indo-Pacific region. According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, more than 41,000 missing are presumed lost at sea via sunken ships, submarines, and downed aircraft.
Of the 81,500 unaccounted for, 6,376 were Californians: 5,606 from World War II, 585 from the Korean War, 23 from the Cold War, and 161 from Vietnam.
The agency, however, is making inroads. Since its inception in 2015, the agency has identified more than 1,000 American war dead. Weekly, if not daily, the agency announces that yet another has been identified and will go home for a proper burial. Over the past year, the recovered remains of a number of Californians have been identified including those who fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
In 2018, 55 boxes of remains were returned to the United States from North Korea. Because the North Koreans co-mingled the remains, it complicates the identification process. Additionally, the fact that the remains were more than 60 years old and that U.S. investigators lack forensic information—where the soldiers were initially buried in North Korea—makes the process even more difficult. Instead, they rely on dental records and mitochondrial DNA, which could take years to complete, according to the Department of Defense.
And in 1950, seven years after 1,000 Marines and sailors died during World War II’s Battle of Tarawa, a military board claimed hundreds of them “non-recoverable.” Families were left to mourn without knowing where their loved ones lay.
That changed in 2008, when a group of veterans and scientists went to the island and began finding remains. As of 2022, more than 100 have been recovered and identified; and they believe they can find as many as 250 more, according to a story on CNN.
Some families, at least, finally received answers and attended funerals.
For others, the facts—like the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen themselves—are still missing.