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To Name Unknown Soldiers Who Died, Military Mulls DNA Methods
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DNA-based techniques that have successfully tracked down elusive serial killers may soon be used to help identify thousands of American service members “known but to God.”

South of Rome, an American military cemetery has a grave that is thought to contain a young Army private named Melton Futch. But the white marble marker reads only, “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.”

It is one of some 6,000 graves of American troops killed in World War II whom the military was not able to identify with the technology of the time.

Today, of course, there is DNA analysis. Increasingly sophisticated techniques make it possible to obtain, even from bones that may have deteriorated for decades, a unique genomic profile that can reliably confirm their identity.

But in order to work, DNA identification requires a sample from a blood relative for comparison. And in the cases of many of the World War II dead the military can find no siblings, no parents, no children, not even distant cousins. In these cases, despite remarkable advances, the Army runs into the same dead ends today that it encountered in the 1940s.

So the Defense Department is considering trying a strikingly different approach: Instead of finding relatives and then matching their DNA, military researchers want to use the DNA to find the relatives.

It is a tactic that has helped solve scores of cold murder cases in recent years, including that of the Golden State Killer. Investigators take DNA found at crime scenes and upload it to public genetic databases in hopes of finding matches in family trees that can point back to one individual.

Increasingly sophisticated lab techniques make it possible to obtain a unique genetic profile even from bones that have deteriorated for decades.Erin Schaff/The New York Times

“The technology is there — we just have to develop the policy to use it,” said Timothy McMahon, who oversees DNA identification of remains for the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System.

The Defense Department has mounted a global effort for decades to recover and identify all service members lost since the onset of World War II. Initially it focused on finding unrecovered remains in remote crash sites, sunken ships, overrun jungle foxholes and similar places. But with the development of DNA testing, it has turned increasingly to the thousands of bodies that were recovered long ago and buried without being identified.

The cold-case DNA approach has the potential to solve cases that have stumped researchers for years, like that of Private Futch, the poor son of a sawmill worker who had lied about his age to enlist at 16.

One cold winter night in December 1944, 20-year-old Private Futch wrapped himself in a green wool overcoat and crept toward a hill in Northern Italy, as part of a raiding party hoping to surprise the enemy. The Germans were waiting.

The tear of machine guns filled the icy darkness. The Americans fell back, and when they regrouped below, Private Futch was nowhere to be found.

After the war, local people stumbled on the bones of a soldier on the hillside, still wrapped in a weathered wool coat. The pockets held Private Futch’s address book and a letter from his wife. But what seemed like a straightforward identification soon unraveled.

For decades the Army has begun with traditional identification methods like measuring bones, studying old dental charts, and leafing through mimeographed battle reports. Even after DNA testing became available, it has typically been used only at the end of the process, to confirm a tentative identification.

In this case, Army grave-registration examiners could not match the teeth of the dead man to the private’s dental records, and while the bones suggested a soldier of the right age and African ancestry, the Army estimated that they belonged to a man who was several inches taller. Unable to be certain whose bones they were, the Army buried them in the cemetery near Rome.

The case was reopened a few years ago by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which tried to find a relative of Private Futch to compare DNA. But the soldier had no siblings or children. Genealogists could not even find a second cousin.

Candles were lit atop the grave markers at the American military cemetery in Nettuno, Italy, in 2019 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Allied landings at Anzio. Some of the soldiers buried there have never been positively identified.Stefano Montesi/Getty Images

The agency’s rules do not allow a body to be exhumed unless there is at least a 50 percent chance that the remains can be identified by doing so. In Private Futch’s case, the lack of a family DNA sample for comparison prevents the agency from digging up the bones and testing them.

Critics of the current approach — a plodding and costly process that has yielded fewer than 200 identifications a year with a budget exceeding $150 million — say the government should set aside the 50 percent rule, obtain DNA samples from every unknown’s remains, and start running them through every possible DNA database.

“Right now they are doing it backward, so you have policy getting in the way of science,” said Ed Huffine, who headed testing of remains from past wars for the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab in the 1990s, then spent years doing mass-casualty identification work in the civilian sphere.

Mr. Huffine said that the old dental records and other 1940s paperwork that the Army starts with now can create problems because they are often riddled with errors. But starting with DNA quickly produces reliable results, and has been used in places like Bosnia and Argentina to identify large numbers of unknown dead.

“Switching to DNA-first will be faster, cheaper and produce better results,” he said. “It just makes sense.”

But developing a new DNA-first policy is “thorny,” said Dr. McMahon, the Army DNA identification expert, because the military must not only set rules for which graves should be opened and when, but also figure out how to uncover the identities of the dead without invading the privacy of the living. It is a tricky endeavor because genetic searches can reveal infidelity and other long-hidden family secrets.

“Our goal is to do no more harm than has already been done,” Dr. McMahon said.

Even so, he said, the Army is forging ahead and hopes to begin using the technique soon.

The traditional methods can be especially problematic when researching Black American troops like Private Futch who are lost in war, because the legacies of slavery and racial discrimination have made many Black families hard to trace through official records.

Timothy McMahon, who oversees DNA identification of remains for the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, walking past some of the 8.2 million DNA reference cards stored at Dover Air Force Base. The military adds about 250,000 samples a year to the repository.Erin Schaff/The New York Times

The Army was racially segregated in World War II, and Private Futch belonged to its only Black combat unit, the 92nd Infantry Division, nicknamed the Buffalo Soldiers. The division landed in Naples and pushed north alongside white units until they hit fortified German mountain defenses known as the Gothic Line. Fierce fighting there left more than 500 of the division’s soldiers dead and hundreds more missing. After the war, all but 53 of their bodies were identified; the remaining 53 were buried in “unknown” graves in Italy.

In 2014, the Defense Department started a project to find the names of the 53, but it has identified only a handful, and attempts to track down families have often found nothing.

“It’s much more challenging,” said Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist who has traced thousands of family trees for the agency. Black soldiers’ relatives are often scattered widely after a century of migration, she said, and may appear only sparingly in the paper trail of voting rolls, property records and local news clippings.

“African-Americans, even if they have been in a community for hundreds of years, are just absent from the record,” she said. “They just aren’t there.”

Melton Futch was an only child, born to a couple who had moved from rural Georgia to the Florida Panhandle to find work at a saw mill and turpentine still. They owned no property and could not read or write, according to census records. Mr. Futch’s grandparents were enslaved people.

When researchers have to go back generations to try to find cousins, Ms. Smolenyak said, “it doesn’t take long before you hit the wall of slavery, where people become property. That can be a lot more complicated.”

The public’s diminishing trust in government may also make distant cousins hesitant to give a DNA sample to help identify someone they may never have heard of. Despite years of outreach, the Army has not been able to obtain family DNA reference for one-third of the 53 unknown Buffalo Soldiers.

Family DNA may seem unnecessary in a case like that of Private Futch, where a single body was found on the hillside where he was last seen, bearing some of his possessions in a coat pocket. But decades of experience identifying troops lost in war have taught researchers that even in cases where the identity seems glaringly obvious, a hasty conclusion can put one man’s name on another man’s bones.

“A lot of tricky things can happen in war that you wouldn’t expect,” said Sarah Barksdale, an Accounting Agency historian who has narrowed down the possible identities for several unknown Buffalo Soldiers. She cited one example of a body found wearing a bracelet with a name on it, but the name belonged to a comrade who was still alive. Another died with signed photographs of a wife in his pocket — the wife of another soldier.

In the case of the bones found with Private Futch’s address book, researchers started with a list of 44 possible names of men killed in that area of Italy. Based on stature and where each man was last seen, they excluded 36. Dental records ruled out seven more, leaving only one possibility: Melton Futch. But the case is stuck until the Pentagon can find a relative, or change its rules to allow DNA testing first.

Dr. McMahon of the DNA testing lab says the policy change is coming. The idea of solving the unknowns the same way the police solved the Golden State Killer case is so compelling, he said, that “I think we could see it in the near future.”

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