What Remains: The Search for Soldiers in North Korea


DOVER, De. (WAVY) — On Veterans Day, we honor all who served, including those yet to return. 

Earlier this year, North Korea released 55 boxes to the United States, carrying the remains of American service members missing in action since the war.

Although two service members have been identified among the boxes, much about them remains a mystery: Who’s in them? How did they die? Perhaps most importantly, when will their families be able to properly bury them?

A team of scientists working for the Department of Defense at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware is working to answer those questions, led by Dr. Timothy McMahon. 

“When you think about the ethos of the soldiers ‘leave nobody behind’, that’s been going on since WWII,” said McMahon.

That same ethos drives McMahon’s DNA Operations team.

“A lot of people in the United States don’t even realize to what extent the government does go to recover (service members),” he said.

McMahon’s team takes over after the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency recovers remains and completes a preliminary assessment. 

Even if very little of a service member’s body is left, the scientists have a decent shot at making an identification.

“We’ve gone from needing a five gram piece of bone to needing .25 grams. That’s pretty much about the tip of your pinkie,” McMahon said. “We will extract or pull the DNA out of it, we’ll purify it, and then we’ll test it using a combination of forensic techniques.”

Photos: DOD DNA Operations Team

The lab’s work depends on families coming forward to participate by giving samples of their own DNA. 

Of the 8,100 service members originally missing from the Korean War, 92 percent have family members who have participated, McMahon said. 

“When you’re collecting swabs from families who had never donated before, and you’re listening to the stories of their loved ones, you can’t help but be excited and hopeful,” he said. 

Even if scientists have only fragments to work with from the boxes – they have a good shot at identifying the soldier.

To illustrate just how precise this science is, McMahon tells the story of a Vietnam pilot’s remains, eventually recovered overseas. 

“We found a single tooth,” he said. “We were able to get a DNA result, link it to a family reference, and so that tooth was returned to two sisters who were in their 90s. And to me, that’s what this is about , to give something back so the family knows that their loved one is on U.S. soil.”

Although McMahon knows that the direct relatives for Korean War soldiers are nearing the end of their lives, he doesn’t let that discourage him or his team. 

“What I’ve noticed is the multigenerational effect,” he said. “The families are passing it on. It’s just as important to the next generation as the previous.”

McMahon will not say how close his team is to identifying more remains from the 55 boxes, but said his team made 201 identifications last year, and is on track to meet that goal this year.

Tomorrow on WAVY News 10, meet a family still waiting for closure, decades after a young man from Hampton was reported missing in action. Part II of What Remains: The Search for Soldiers in North Korea airs at 6 p.m.

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