Bone by Bone, A Forensic Puzzle Leads to Korean War Homecomings

Mar 30, 2016

63 years after the Korean War ended, remains of U.S. service members are being identified and returned to their families -- thanks to advances in DNA technology.

A small team of scientists in Hawaii is cracking one of the hardest cases in the history of forensic science, one bone at time, from a huge, scrambled collection.

The remains belong to hundreds of American troops lost during the Korean War.

More than sixty years after the men died, the U.S. government is having newfound success in identifying their remains and returning them to family members. It's just in time for some of the families, because the last relatives who knew the missing men are rapidly vanishing.

Like Charles Ivey's.

Life didn't have time to mark Ivey much. The broad-shouldered, strawberry blond soldier from Vance County, North Carolina was 21 years old when the Army told his parents he was missing in action in North Korea.

That was in 1950.

In 1953, they said he was dead, killed in an ambush.

In 1955, they declared his body "unrecoverable."

That was the year his mother wrote a letter to the Army.

Charles Ivey was killed in a Korean War ambush in 1950. His remains recently were returned to his family.

"He had a perfect set of teeth," she wrote. "No records of any work. He had a slight case of pneumonia from measles when he was 12 years old …. The only scar was a chicken pox scar right under left eye. He was in perfect health all through his boyhood."

There was something hopeful in her mention of the scar. A scar in flesh. A hope, however faint, that she thought he might be found alive.

In the years that followed, Ivey's mother died. His father, too. And 10 of his 11 siblings.

The last of them, Harold Ivey, has lost a leg to diabetes and is on dialysis.

Charles Ivey's fate still weighs on the remaining family members. A niece, Gail LaRue, cried recently after rereading that letter to the Army. It reminded her of the letters to Ivey that her grandmother had written every Sunday while he was at war. Some were returned, marked with his missing status.

What the family didn't know was that for more than two decades, his remains had been in the United States, in a building on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii.

Department of Defense scientists there had struggled for much of that time, trying to figure out a way to identify the remains of more than 600 men returned from North Korea. Remains that were all mixed together.

208 boxes; about 400 missing men

In 2011, the military opened a lab to tackle just these cases. It's called the K208 lab: K for Korea and 208 for the number of boxes containing remains that North Korea gave the United States in the early 1990s.

The Koreans said then that each box held the remains of one U.S. service member. But that wasn't true.

Instead, the boxes contained hundreds of sets of remains - and one of the most daunting cases in the history of forensic science.

When they first arrived, there just weren't enough clues to make identifications. At the time, DNA testing wasn't a practical tool for identifying such remains. But later, the technology improved. When the anthropologists in the lab began using the new identification techniques, they got a shock, said John Byrd, a forensic anthropologist who now heads the military lab charged with identifying recovered remains of troops lost in wars since World War II.

"When I started working here in 1998, I remember we got in a batch of DNA results from one box that was purportedly one soldier that had been turned over to us from the North Koreans," Byrd said. "In that one box were parts of 11 soldiers, according to the DNA results we had. And what we learned since then, is that that's the norm."

"Most often there's remains of many, many, different soldiers represented in each of the boxes and it's not unusual for there to be no two bones from the same soldier in a box," he said.

All told, those 208 boxes held were bones from about 400 men.

Even if there were just one man per box, identifying them would have been a huge challenge. But with thousands of bones swirled together, it was nearly hopeless.

And it got worse.

For a few years, U.S. recovery teams were allowed into North Korea to look for more remains. They were led to burial sites, many of them recent and mysteriously fabricated by the North Koreans.

Those teams brought home another 112 boxes of jumbled bones.

Later tests showed those bones belonged to men who had been lost all over the country, not just where the teams dug them up. That made it harder to tie them to a particular American unit or battle. Worse yet, tests showed that some belonged to the same Americans in the 208 boxes.

So, between the 208 boxes and the remains recovered by the U.S. teams, there were remains from more than 600 men, all scrambled together.

Forensic anthropologists call mixed up remains "commingled."

But a typical commingled case for the scientists Byrd leads might be, say, six men from a plane crash, whose names were listed on the crew manifest.

Even identifications from THAT kind of case can take years. This one looked all but impossible.

"I've visited many different countries where they have large commingled assemblages," Byrd said. "I've visited Bosnia multiple times and seen what they are doing in Cyprus, and I'm familiar with what they've done with the World Trade Center remains. And these are all really really tough cases."

"But I would say that there is no other case in the world that is more difficult and challenging than the K208 project in terms of the size of the project and the condition of the remains and the complexity."

But now they're solving it.

After ten years of frustration, a breakthrough

Jennie Jin leads the small team of anthropologists who work in K208 project, which is housed in a Honolulu building, alongside a larger lab where the remains from other conflicts are identified.

The K208 lab was created after scientists began to figure out methods for solving the puzzle of the boxes. And the 208 boxes have evolved from a daunting problem to a major success for the lab.

A few key changes made that possible, Byrd said.

"One of them is the DNA technology which has improved dramatically in the last five years," he said. "And that credit all goes to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab, where they have refined their testing procedures in such a way that they are now able to get mitochondrial DNA out of more than 90 percent of the specimens we're here submitting to them.

"And even though these are very degraded bone samples - they're what the DNA folks would call challenged bone samples - they're still getting nuclear profiles out of this many of the samples were sending them," he said.

Forensic Anthropologist John Byrd heads the military lab charged with identifying recovered remains of troops lost in wars since World War II.
Credit Bill Dasher / Department of Defense

Also important was the creation and staffing of the lab once the scientists realized there ways to solve the cases, Byrd said.

When the boxes arrived, Jin said, there so many bones and so few clues that traditional identification methods -  like measuring and matching bones - were all but useless.

"So we couldn't do much for about 10 years, and then technology advanced, and that's when we saw the potential of using mitochondrial DNA," Jin said.

Mitochondrial DNA can often be found in bones that have been buried even for decades. But here's the part where you need to forget what you might have seen about DNA on TV. The mitochondrial kind just isn't very precise.

"My favorite analogy is that it works like last names," said Jin.

Last names that only go so far helping them narrow down whether, say, one femur matches another. Or which set of remains belongs to a specific soldier.

Some sequences may match just one of the 7,900 Americans missing in Korea. But others can match dozens. One sequence matches at least 811 of the missing.

Still, this gave the scientists a the crucial tool they needed for at least partially sorting remains. Or more accurately, half a tool. They still had to wait for the military to collect a library of DNA samples from families of the missing to try to match the DNA from the bones.

It took years, but the military now has samples from 90 percent of the families.

Even so, the DNA testing isn't enough, by itself. Intuition and old-school forensic techniques are still crucial. The scientists often have to think hard about how to use the right mix of approaches in a given case.

"My job is to come up with the best strategy to make an identification, because it's really different case-by-case," said Jin.

"I know them by bones"

The K208 lab has a glass wall looking out past Pearl Harbor - itself still the home of so many missing sailors - onto Oahu's interior mountains. It's dominated by 17 door-sized tables, many of them holding groups of bones. On a recent day, Jin stopped at a table that held four groups of ivory-colored bones.

"We believe this is one person, that's one person, that's another one, that's the fourth individual," she said, pointing.

The four sets of remains were among the hardest cases her team is dealing with, because they had the mitochondrial sequence that matches so many of the Korean War missing.

"So there are 811 guys … that we have the family reference samples for, who match this sequence, so my job is to come up with the four names out of that 811 guys to see which one these guys could be," she said.

An early step is laying out bones with the same mitochondrial DNA, then using mainly traditional methods to separate the into the bones of individual men.

"First, I start with historical evidence," Jin said. " Let's say there are 10 guys with the same mitochondrial DNA. And these are the remains from North Korea. So I go and look at the South Korean losses to exclude them.

"And then after that, I look at their biological profile," she said. "Sometimes if that person was very tall or very short that gives us a good clue. So that's how I keep narrowing it down to a certain number of individuals."

Then comes the next big step: identifying the remains, matching them with a specific missing man.

One set of remains they pulled together had the same the mitochondrial DNA as the families of at least four missing men. But the bones clearly belonged to an unusually tall man, which was a powerful piece of evidence, and helped the scientists send the remains of Master Sgt. Robert A. Stein home to Jamestown, New York.

The scientists also use other traditional tools, including dental records and chest x-rays if the right bones and teeth are present and the medical records are available.

Another big advance has come in the use of nuclear DNA. That kind is harder to find in the old bones than mitochondrial DNA and often can be found only in partial sequences in the K208 remains.

But if it can be found, it's powerful evidence for pinning down an ID.

In Charles Ivey's case, his mitochondrial DNA sequence - that genetic last name - was uncommon. But the scientists needed more.

In her Honolulu laboratory, forensic anthropologist Jennie Jin displays photos of the service members whose remains have been successfully identified.
Credit Bill Dasher / Department of Defense

They sent off samples for nuclear DNA testing. Some was found some in two leg bones and his jaw and was checked his sisters for a match.

Getting the results of that test back is a big moment.

"And then I get that last piece of unofficial DNA results, that makes my day," Jin said.

"These guys are near and dear to me because I know them by bones."

For each success, a photo on a board

And she cares for another reason. Jin has an unusual connection to the men she's trying to identify. American troops helped her paternal grandparents flee their native North Korea just a month after Charles Ivey vanished there.

"And thanks to them my grandfather survived, and he came out of North Korea, and here I am today," she said. "The least I can do to their families is to identify these guys and send them home."

Her 89-year-old grandfather, Sang-chil Jin, is a reminder for her of how little time that the missing men's families have left for answers.

"He's still alive, but I know how old he is, and he was pretty much the same age with these guys," she said. "So their surviving siblings are my grandfather's age."

The scientists have basic methods now that often work. But not all the time. Sometimes a bone is too eroded to measure. Other times, Jin's team pulls together the remains of what they know is one man, and they have his mitochondrial DNA, but his family is one of those who haven't donated DNA samples.

So, they have a man, but no name.

Some days a case is so tough, so frustrating, Jin said, that she has to leave the lab awhile. One of those days, she drove to a nearby Walmart and bought some display boards.

Now two of them are propped in the lab, covered with photos of men whose remains her team has identified.

"I remember pretty much every single thing about the cases," Jin said. "And they were all challenging in some way, and it's all different."

"Harold Evans, he was a difficult case because his remains were co-mingled and so many boxes," said Jin, as she pointed at photos on the board.  "Robert Stein was a very, very tall person .... but he had three other guys who matched the same mitochondrial DNA."

There's another board Jin keeps out of sight, with photos of men whose remains will probably be identified soon.

"Those are not on this board, but that keeps me going," she said. "That puts the face to the bones."

In the decade after the boxes began arriving, an average of one man a year was identified from them.

Last year alone, Jin's team identified 29.

Including a broad-shouldered young soldier from North Carolina.

Six decades later, a fallen soldier flies home

On a sunny morning, almost 65 years to the day after Charles Ivey was killed, Harold Ivey and Gail

Fire trucks shoot an arc of water over the jet carrying the casket of Charles Ivey at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
Credit Jay Price / American Homefront

LaRue came to Raleigh-Durham International Airport. For a while, Harold sat in a circle of journalists, talking about his brother.

"I'm feeling a little sad but I'm also feeling happy," Ivey said. "He's being returned home you know and we can get this past us."

He also talked about the ten siblings who weren't there, including LaRue's mother and another sister -- the two who gave the DNA samples a decade ago that finally let the military identify their brother.

Then Harold Ivey turned his electric wheelchair into the elevator down to the runway apron, where a Delta jet was taxiing up between two fire trucks. The trucks shot an arch of water over it, making a rainbow, then the jet stopped.

A flag-covered casket eased down a ramp and halted at the bottom. Harold Ivey and Gail LaRue each put a hand on that flag and bowed their heads.

There were still some left who cared that Charles Ivey had finally come home.

In North Carolina. And in Hawaii.

That's where Jennie Jin was printing up the latest batch of photos for the display boards in the lab. Including a picture of a young Charles Ivey.