Work Has Begun To Identify Possible Remains Of U.S. Serviceman North Korea made the largest unilateral transfer of what are believed to be remains of U.S. servicemen. NPR's Ari Shapiro speaks with Dr. John Byrd, chief scientist of the Department of Defense, about the challenge of identifying those remains.
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Work Has Begun To Identify Possible Remains Of U.S. Serviceman

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Work Has Begun To Identify Possible Remains Of U.S. Serviceman

Work Has Begun To Identify Possible Remains Of U.S. Serviceman

Work Has Begun To Identify Possible Remains Of U.S. Serviceman

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North Korea made the largest unilateral transfer of what are believed to be remains of U.S. servicemen. NPR's Ari Shapiro speaks with Dr. John Byrd, chief scientist of the Department of Defense, about the challenge of identifying those remains.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Master Sergeant Charles Hobert McDaniel served as a medic in the Korean War and has been missing ever since. Today, at a hotel near the Pentagon, the agency responsible for recovering the remains of missing service members gave his dog tag to his two sons, Larry and Charles. Though his father's remains have not been identified, Charles McDaniel says he was surprised by his own reaction to just seeing the tag.

CHARLES MCDANIEL: I have to say, I didn't think about the emotions that were very deep, even though I was a small boy and have very little memory of my father. But I sat there, and I cried for a while and took a while to compose myself.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The dog tag was included in one of the 55 small wooden boxes North Korea gave to the U.S. last month. According to North Korea, those boxes held the remains of Americans who were killed there decades ago.

SHAPIRO: The work to identify those remains has already begun. And Dr. John Byrd is leading this effort. He's chief scientist from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. And he joins us now in the studio. Dr. Byrd, welcome.

JOHN BYRD: Well, thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Your team has been examining the content of these wooden boxes. Can you first just give me a description of what's inside of them - what it looks like?

BYRD: Well, inside the boxes were remains of humans. And when we looked at the remains, they were very, very carefully packaged. We had provided bubble wrap to use for padding for the remains to protect them during transport. And the Koreans' People Army or KPA soldiers who had packed these remains into the boxes had done a really nice job of...

SHAPIRO: So the North Koreans seemed to be treating these remains with respect.

BYRD: They did. And it was clear to us that their intent was to protect these remains during the long transfer - or transport from Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, over to Wonsan, which is a coastal city on the east coast of North Korea. And that's where we went to meet the KPA and received the remains.

SHAPIRO: As best you can tell, does each one of these 55 boxes correspond to one person?

BYRD: No. The North Korean soldiers that we talked to who were helping us when we went to pick up the remains, they have an anthropologist that works with them. And he was forthcoming in saying that it was very difficult to, in many cases, sort comingled remains apart. And they made a good faith effort to segregate them as best they could.

But he wanted me to know that that effort probably was not good enough. And he said to me, I know you will do DNA testing and other types of analyses. We know that you can sort these out. But we don't want you to think that this is one-man-one-box situation.

SHAPIRO: Do you have any idea how many individuals we're talking about here? There are thousands of Americans who are unaccounted for from the Korean War. Do you have any idea how many are represented by these 55 boxes?

BYRD: It's a little premature for me to give you a good scientific estimate of the number. But what I can tell you - I can refer back to the past. In the early 1990s, we received 208 boxes of remains very similar to these from North Korea over about a five-year period. What we learned is that in the 208 boxes, there were about 400 individuals represented.

SHAPIRO: Do you think most of these remains can be identified?

BYRD: I do. Over many, many years, we have developed scientific capabilities that are going to allow us to not only sort the comingled remains, but to individually identify most of these individuals.

SHAPIRO: I know you've talked with a lot of families of Korean War veterans over the years. Is there one conversation that you can tell us about that stands out in particular?

BYRD: I can tell you a conversation last night. I was sitting in the hotel lobby with my colleagues from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner from the DNA laboratory. And a family member came up, a woman from Texas whose brother is missing from the Korean War. And she recognized us from - she had seen us many times in past meetings. She knew who we were. And she just came up. And she was so excited about the prospects of what's happening now and what's going to happen in the near future.

And she said, you know, I know my brother may not be in those 55 boxes, but somebody's brother is certainly in those 55 boxes. And you can't help but be moved by that. I don't think a day goes by when she doesn't think about her brother. And it really brings it home for you what you're doing and why you're doing it.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Byrd, thanks so much for coming on and talking with us.

BYRD: Thank you for having us.

SHAPIRO: Dr. John Byrd leads the Department of Defense forensics lab that is now undertaking the work of identifying the remains recently returned from North Korea.

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