(from DPMO's Winter 2004 "The Torch")

Working to Identify the "Punchbowl" Unknowns

—During Operation Glory in 1954, the Korean People's Army and Chinese People's Volunteers repatriated 2,944 American war dead among others from North Korea. Although they were assessed to be American, 416 service members could not he identified by name and were buried as unknowns at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, which is also known as the Punchbowl. Other unidentifiable Americans, who were recovered at sea and in South Korea, were also interred at the Punchbowl, gradually bringing the Korean War "unknown" population to 867.

Several years ago forensic specialists considered that the information in their files, combined with DNA and other improved methods at their disposal, might lead to identification of some of the Korean War unknowns buried at the Punchbowl. Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) specialists worked with DPMO Northeast Asia analysts to select candidates for exhumation that, based upon available data, offered the greatest possibility for identification.

In 1999, DPMO developed a policy authorizing Punchbowl exhumations, provided there was a high probability of identification, and based on the improved identification technologies. Two Korean War era trial exhumations in September 1999, and two more in 2001, began the process and forensic specialists initiated efforts to identify them.

Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that mortuary preparations using a powdered formaldehyde substance at the time of interment in the 1950s made mtDNA typing virtually impossible. Although they sent several bone samples from the exhumed remains to the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL). they could not extract usable DNA from any of the bones.

Nevertheless, since the analysts knew the remains were from the group returned by China and North Korea during Operation Glory and had other data on them, they were able to narrow significantly the list of potential candidates. In combing their files on one of the men. CIL analysts discovered a small chest x-ray that strongly resembled one of the sets of unknown remains.

Taking into consideration the x-ray evidence and using a new computer program called OdontoSearch, forensic specialists established the identity of one of the unknowns. Last year the remains were positively identified as United States Marine Corps Private First Class Ronald Lillcdahl, who was killed in November 1950 when his unit was surrounded by Chinese forces on the west side of the Chosin Reservoir.

Work continues on the other exhumed remains in hopes of developing new processes that may lead to additional identifications from the Punchbowl.