South of Rome, an American military cemetery has a grave that is said to contain a young army soldier named Melton Futch. But the white marble marker only reads: “Here lies in honored glory a comrade in arms known but of God.”
It is one of some 6,000 graves of American soldiers killed in World War II that the military could not identify with the technology of the time.
Today, of course, there is a DNA analysis. More and more sophisticated techniques make it possible to obtain, even from bones that may have deteriorated for decades, a unique genomic profile making it possible to reliably confirm their identity.
But to work, DNA identification requires a sample of a relative’s blood for comparison. And in the case of many who died in WWII, the military cannot find siblings, parents, children, or even distant cousins. In these cases, despite remarkable progress, the army today finds itself in the same dead ends that it encountered in the 1940s.
So the Defense Ministry plans to try a drastically different approach: instead of finding relatives and then matching their DNA, military researchers want to use DNA to find the parents.
It’s a tactic that has helped solve many cold murder cases in recent years, including that of the Golden State Killer. Investigators are taking DNA found at crime scenes and uploading it to public DNA databases in hopes of finding matches in family trees that may link to an individual.
“The technology is there – we just have to develop the policy to use it,” said Timothy McMahon, who oversees DNA identification of the remains for the military forensic pathologist system.
The Department of Defense has mounted a global effort for decades to recover and identify all military personnel lost since the start of World War II. Initially, he focused on finding unrecovered remains at remote accident sites, sunken ships, jungle overgrown foxholes, and similar locations. But with the development of DNA testing, he increasingly turned 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 baffled researchers for years, such as that of Private Futch, the poor son of a sawmill worker who lied about his age for himself. enlist at 16.
On a cold winter night in December 1944, Private Futch, 20, wrapped himself in a green wool overcoat and slipped into a hill in northern Italy, as part of a raid in the hope of surprising the enemy. The Germans were waiting.
The tear of machine guns filled the icy darkness. The Americans retreated, and when they regrouped at the bottom, Private Futch was nowhere to be found.
After the war, the local population fell to the bones of a soldier on the hillside, still wrapped in a weathered woolen coat. The pockets contained Private Futch’s address book and a letter from his wife. But what seemed like a simple identification quickly faded away.
For decades, the military began with traditional methods of identification such as measuring bones, studying old dental maps, and leafing through mimeographed battle reports. Even after DNA testing became available, it was generally only used at the end of the process, to confirm an identification attempt.
In this case, examiners of the army grave record could not match the teeth of the dead man to the private dental records, and while the bones suggested a soldier of the correct age and of African descent , the military felt they belonged to a man who was several inches taller. Unable to know who these bones belonged to, 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 someone close to Private Futch to compare the DNA. But the soldier had no brothers, sisters or children. Genealogists couldn’t even find a second cousin.
Agency rules do not allow the exhumation of a body unless there is at least a 50% chance that the remains can be identified in this way. 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 laborious and expensive process that produced fewer than 200 identifications per year with a budget of over $ 150 million – say the government should put aside the 50% rule, get samples of ‘DNA from all the remains of strangers and start to deal with them. through all possible DNA databases.
“Right now they’re doing it backwards, so you have a policy that hinders science,” said Ed Huffine, who led testing on remnants of past wars for the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab. in the 1990s and then spent years massing. victim identification work in the civilian sector.
Mr. Huffine said old dental records and other 1940s documents that the military is starting 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 deaths.
“Switching to DNA first will be faster, cheaper and produce better results,” he said. “It makes sense.”
But crafting a new DNA-first policy is “thorny,” said Dr McMahon, the Army’s DNA identification expert, because the military not only has to set rules for which graves must be opened and when, but also determine how to uncover identities. of the dead without invading the privacy of the living. This is a tricky business because genetic research can reveal infidelity and other long-hidden family secrets.
“Our goal is not to do more harm than has already been done,” said Dr McMahon.
Even so, he said, the military is moving forward and hopes to start using the technique soon.
Traditional methods can be particularly problematic when searching for black American troops like Private Futch who are lost in the war, as the legacies of slavery and racial discrimination have made many black families difficult to trace in records. official.
The military was racially segregated during World War II, and Private Futch was part of his only black combat unit, the 92nd Infantry Division, known as the Buffalo Soldiers. The division landed at Naples and pushed north alongside the white units until they reached the fortified German mountain defenses known as the Gothic Line. Fierce fighting there left more than 500 soldiers in the division dead and hundreds more missing. After the war, all but 53 of their bodies were identified; the other 53 were buried in “unknown” graves in Italy.
In 2014, the Defense Ministry launched a project to find the names of the 53, but only identified a handful, and attempts to track down the families often found nothing.
“It’s much more difficult,” said Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist who has traced thousands of family trees for the agency. Relatives of black soldiers are often dispersed after a century of migration, she said, and appear sparingly on voting lists, property records and local newspaper clippings.
“African Americans, even though they have been in a community for hundreds of years, are simply missing 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 in a sawmill and more turpentine. They did not own any property and could not read or write, according to census records. Mr. Futch’s grandparents were slaves.
When researchers have to go back generations to try to find cousins, Ms Smolenyak said, “It doesn’t take long before we hit the wall of slavery, where people become possessions. It can be much more complicated. “
Declining public trust in government may also make distant cousins reluctant to donate a DNA sample to help identify someone they may never have heard of. Despite years of awareness, the military has been unable to obtain family DNA references for a 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 side of the hill where he was last seen, carrying some of his belongings in a pocket. coat. But decades of experience in identifying troops lost in war have taught researchers that even in cases where identity seems blatantly obvious, a hasty conclusion can put a man’s name on the bones of a man. other.
“A lot of tricky things can happen in wartime that you don’t expect,” said Sarah Barksdale, an Accounting Agency historian who narrowed down the possible identities of several unknown Buffalo soldiers. She cited an 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 woman in his pocket – the wife of another soldier.
In the case of the bones found in Private Futch’s address book, researchers began with a list of 44 possible names of men killed in that region of Italy. Based on stature and where each man was last seen, they ruled out 36. Dental records ruled out seven more, leaving only one possibility: Melton Futch. But the case is on hold until the Pentagon can find a relative or change its rules to allow DNA testing first.
Dr McMahon, from the DNA analysis lab, says the policy change is imminent. 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 might see it in the near future.”