The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Commission, or JPAC, is a group of 400 handpicked soldiers, Marines sailors, airmen, and Department of the Navy civilians within the U.S. Department of Defense who investigate sites in former conflict areas around the world where missing service members are believed to be buried.
On August 6th, JPAC began a 45-day forensic investigation on Tarawa Atoll in the Republic of Kiribati (pronounced kiri-bass, and formerly known as the Gilbert Islands) in search of missing Marines from the famous battle of “Bloody Tarawa,” fought in November 1943.
Of three sites where JPAC will excavate, the first will take place near the Coastwatchers Memorial, where 22 New Zealand, Australian, and British subjects were beheaded by the Japanese on October 15, 1942.
JPAC’s task is not easy. Sixty-seven years have passed since the Marines landed on Betio, the heavily fortified islet at the atoll’s western edge. Burials at the time of the battle were handled by chaplains, doctors, and the Marines themselves. Conditions on the equatorial atoll were imperfect. In the extreme heat what remained after the fighting stopped deteriorated quickly.
According to JPAC Forensic Archaeologist Gregory Fox, fallen Marines on Tarawa were treated respectfully and placed in well-intended cemeteries, but shortly after the battle, priorities shifted. Navy Seabees bulldozed most of the islet to get the airstrip back in operation for the push north into the Marshall Islands and other locations. Stick markers were moved or disintegrated and exact graves locations were lost over time.
“The fog of war was dense. It was another time and another place. Most bodies went straight into the ground, some in ponchos,” Fox noted. “But the pace of the war demanded the airstrip.”
Today’s Betio is a crowded mix of predominantly poor neighborhoods, and growth through the decades resulted in further disturbances to potential grave sites. Since land for development on the islet is limited, building atop American graveyards became common practice.
Other challenges for the JPAC team include variable soil and sand composition. Disturbed soil changes consistency, and sand is difficult to dig in with forensic precision. Materials in sand scorched by the blast of a Navy shell or flamethrower break down differently than those in sand mixed with degraded coconut logs, which the Japanese used to fortify their defenses. “By now bone will basically be the consistency of a Rolaids tablet,” Fox said.
An identification by JPAC is never made by the team on the ground, according to set rules. Even the discovery of dog tags with remains is inconclusive. While such a find would be exciting, Fox stressed that as an accredited crime lab, JPAC uses strict methods based on biological evidence. “Field discoveries follow a legal process through a chain of custody, preliminary assessment, then identifications or exclusions, if possible,” he said.
JPAC’s mission on Tarawa is unique in that the team is not searching for a remote gravesite, but exploring cemeteries where Marines are believed buried or where earlier recoveries were uncovered. Cooperation with the government of Kiribati and Betio locals was essential to the preliminary site visit, which occurred in September of 2009.
“The team’s ultimate goal is to recover and identify as many service personnel as possible,” Fox said. “That process can take many months.” In the short term, the team in the field will carry out the recovery of any remains unearthed, and the process of identification will occur over time at JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. By then, the team will have moved on to other locations to search for missing service personnel.
According to the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO), the office responsible for establishing and overseeing policies on the recovery of the remains of those who are missing in action from foreign battlefields, there are 81,864 missing U.S. service personnel dating back to World War II. JPAC’s website puts the official count from World War II at 74,190.
As for the number of missing Marines on Betio, the numbers are unclear. According to a July 27, 2010, press release from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, exact numbers aren’t known, but it is likely there are several hundred. According to Fox, speculating on numbers is inappropriate. “There’s a reason the missing are missing. No one knows where they are,” Fox said.
The JPAC team for Tarawa is made up of 13 people, including a team leader responsible for overall safety and success, a forensic archaeologist who directs the excavation and documentation processes, a team sergeant, medic, photographers, communications specialist, and an explosive ordinance technician. Eight of the 11 team members are Marines.
While all branches of service are represented on most JPAC missions, this one is unique because of the importance of the Battle of Tarawa in Marine Corps history. Public Affairs Officer Army Major Ray Osorio stressed the cooperation between the branches. “Our missions are truly a combined effort, but we understand that for Marines, this one is special,” he said.
It is no coincidence then that the Tarawa team is led by a Marine, Captain Ernest Nordman, who served with Marine Wing Support Squadron 272 in western Al Anbar province in Iraq. According to Captain Nordman, this particular JPAC mission brings Corps history back to life.
“Marine Corps knowledge is essential to the training received at boot camp, and here it’s even more important. I’m absolutely honored to be here,” he said.
When asked if he had a message for other Marines aware of the JPAC mission to Tarawa, Captain Nordman responded quickly with a “Oorah brothers!”
“Feel good in knowing the pride of the Corps is as strong as it’s ever been,” he added, “and because of that the job will get done right.”
Jeremy Edward Shiok is a writer from Anchorage, Alaska. His current book project, Atoll: A Historical Journey to the Central Pacific, retraces the World War II service timeline of his grandfather through the Pacific. Read more at www.atolljourney.weebly.com.