When a soldier dies in war, their remains can be a last consolation for a grieving family, though some families don't even get that. The remains of some 6,000 soldiers who died in World War II have still not been identified. And around 50 of them are soldiers from the 92nd Infantry Division, the African American soldiers who fought in Italy in 1944 and 1945.
Current rules require a DNA sample from a relative before remains can be exhumed for testing. But now, the Pentagon is considering a more expansive way to use DNA.
The World's Marco Werman spoke with two people on the subject. The first interview was with Timothy McMahon, the director of the Defense Department's DNA Operations, which oversees the labs involved in identifying American soldiers missing or unaccounted for from past and current wars.
Marco Werman: Can you say a little about what the Pentagon hopes to do?
Timothy McMahon: What we're trying to do is modernize, to meet the new technology that is out in the field. So, in our case, when we're talking about past accounting of remains — and those are remains from World War II, Korea, Vietnam or the Cold War — these are remains that have been out in the environment for 70-plus years or have been chemically treated prior to burial. And so, the DNA is vastly different than what is done with typical current-day losses. What we want to do is take what Ancestry.com and 23andMe have brought to the table to assist with cold cases in your state and local crime labs, and transition that, modernize it, and we have to optimize it to work with very, very damaged DNA.
So, I get Ancestry.com and 23andMe. Can you talk about the technology that you're referring to, how it works and what it complements as a tool to identify remains?
So, when an individual goes to Ancestry.com and 23andMe, they're using their DNA, they're looking at these identity markers and they're asking, who am I related to? And that's what we call a nuclear DNA test. And that gives us a greater statistical ability to identify somebody. But, current technology, for example, is if we look at the paternal line, if this missing service member had a brother and the brother is dead, but had a daughter, that daughter cannot be utilized to assist with the identification of the missing service member, because it's a paternal niece. Under the new testing that we're looking to optimize using these single nucleotide polymorphisms, we can utilize that daughter now as a viable reference to identify that missing service member.
So, you've been using Ancestry.com and 23andMe. Are you using those as examples or would you actually use the data on those sites to kind of identify what remains?
So, I use those as an example to give people a frame of reference. You cannot utilize Ancestry.com or 23andMe for this type of searching. And there are reasons, they're protected because the person is giving a DNA sample to it. There is an existing database that was referenced. The famous case was the Golden State Killer, and that is one where individuals freely upload their results that they've gotten from 23andMe. And you can actually search that if you need to. And that's what your state and local crime labs are actually looking to do, and they've been doing with what is called investigative genetic genealogy.
I think of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, that sacred site in Arlington National Cemetery. I mean, there are many countries that have similar monuments to the unknown war dead. Are we at a point now where there will never have to be such a place, that we have the scientific tools to name the dead from present as well as past wars?
We are at a place like that. And historically, if you look at the Tomb of the Unknown, back in 1998, there were four families who presented enough evidence to the secretary of defense in regards to the Vietnam unknown to make a case that the secretary of defense allowed the disinterment of the unknown, the individual representing all of the unknowns for Vietnam from the Tomb of the Unknown. We had references for those four families. We did DNA testing and the individuals identified as Michael J. Blassie. So, currently in the tomb, there is not a representative of an unknown for Vietnam. So, to answer your question is, through DNA technology, the constant evolution of new methods and the ability to open up more and more references, will we be able to identify everyone? The answer is the technology is getting there, through not just DNA, but through modern anthropological testing. But it all comes back to records, too.
The Defense Department relies on genealogists to find relatives of soldiers unaccounted for from past wars. Megan Smolenyak is one of them. She has consulted with the Pentagon for 20 years, including on cases involving African Americans who served in World War II. Smolenyak told The World that she almost always confronts the history of slavery.
Can you talk about how that history comes up in your research?
Megan Smolenyak: Once you get back past a certain point, what genealogists refer to as the wall of 1870, and we call it that because the 1870 census is the first census in which formerly enslaved individuals finally show up under their own names, and full names, with surnames. So, up until that point, it's about the same as anybody else. But once you hit that point, then you start hitting obstacles. Unfortunately, those who are enslaved were treated like property. And so, you have to try to identify who the enslaver was and then dig into their paper trail anything that puts their property. So, you're mostly talking probates and estates, deeds, that kind of thing. It's uncomfortable research because — I don't care how long you've been doing it — you never get accustomed to seeing individuals mixed in with livestock and crops and furniture. That's what happens in the estate records of these people.
So, what you're saying is that the history of slavery and Jim Crow laws really affect your ability to find past records on soldiers, I mean, soldiers from World War II, like from the 92nd Infantry.
Yes, that's true, that's true. But, any good genealogist is stubborn. You need to just keep on dealing with the records that you can find, but you have to know what those records are. And it is gradually becoming easier. Many probate records, many estate records in different states have been digitized and indexed and put online over the years. But Ancestry.com, for example, only recently, they're going back and they're doing a complete indexing. What I mean by that is up until now, they've only indexed the names of the person who died and the person who administered the estate. Now, they're including everybody who is mentioned in the estate. So, you take an estate, say, from South Carolina, all of a sudden, now those who are enslaved claim to be indexed, and that means that their descendants will be able to find them simply by researching.
I wonder if you can tell us about one soldier from the 92nd Infantry Division that you were able to find a blood relative for, what that process was like.
I can't share too many specifics just because we always protect the privacy of the families. In all genealogy, you start with the present and you walk backwards in time. And so, you start with a few details that you're given about the soldier and you are also given the place that they enlisted from. But again, if you think about African American genealogy and, you know, the Great Migration where they enlisted from, maybe they enlisted in Philadelphia, but they were really born in South Carolina, and that's where most of their family are. So, you have to figure that out. Once you start hitting brick walls, that's when you start digging into specialized records, especially if you do hit the wall of 1870 where, all of a sudden, you're having to deal with kind of the invisible aspect that was created by slavery.
These interviews have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.