From Number to Name

On March 29th, 1972 a man in uniform ascends the front steps of a home in the small town of Milford, Pennsylvania.  Unbeknownst to the family inside, he is about to enter their home, sit down at their kitchen table and change their lives forever.

Edwin “Eddie” Pearce sits with his wife, Rosemary and listens carefully to the stranger in uniform.  He wants to make sure he understands what’s being told to him.  Their son, Jack was not safe in Thailand, as they had been led to believe.  The day before, he was flying a reconnaissance mission over Laos.  His plane, Prometheus, and its 14-man crew had been hit with anti-aircraft missiles and the burning plane crash-landed in the jungle in the vicinity of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Jack was classified as MIA (missing in action).

It had been 29 years since the B-17 plane Eddie had boarded in World War II had been shot down.  As a 19-year-old kid, Eddie had survived in a German POW camp for almost two years.  If Jack had suffered the same fate, he would survive too.  The Pearce family’s faith in this would never waver.  Regardless of what they were told or how much time would go by, there was always the hope that Jack would return home, as Eddie had, to get married, start a family, raise a couple of rugrats, and live a full and happy life.  It was in his genes.

Witness testimonies state that no parachutes were spotted after Jack’s plane began its fiery descent to the jungle below.  The escort planes made several passes over the burning debris.  There were no signs of survivors.  But the short-lived emergency beeper signal received minutes after the crash could not be explained.  Nor could the later testimony of a Laotian man, who claimed to have seen nine surviving crewmembers taken from the wreckage by civilians.

Eddie spends his life searching for Jack, retiring from the state police and going to Laos to look for any clues, any mention of the whereabouts of his son.  On October 14, 1973, Eddie is in Bien Ten for the release of a list of captured POWs.  Just because Jack’s name is not on the list doesn’t mean that he isn’t hiding out somewhere, recovering from injuries in some small, nameless jungle village, determined to reach out to his family, Eddie reasons.

In 1979, after years of protests, phone calls and letters to newspapers and government officials, Eddie and Rosemary receive news that Jack’s status has been changed from MIA to KIA (killed in action).  How could this be?  There was no evidence to suggest that Jack had been killed in the crash.  Namely, there was no body.  Because of this, the Pearce family’s conviction that their son was alive didn’t falter.

The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) is an American government organization.  It searches for, recovers evidence and identifies the remains of U.S. military personnel who have lost their lives in past conflicts abroad.  It’s basically the largest lost and found center in the world.

JPAC performed its original excavation of the Prometheus crash site in 1986.  It was the first time the American government was allowed to enter the country and scour the jungle for clues.  Little evidence was recovered.  A wedding band and dog tags that apparently had not been touched by flame let loose stories of survivors that could have escaped the wreckage with their lives.

After spending a majority of his life searching for his son, Edwin Pearce passes away December 31, 2005.  A little less than a year later, a second excavation yields more clues: flight vests, clothing and human bone.


A military cargo aircraft backs up to a hangar at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.  Hangar 39 is full of people.  Dress code is generally between formal military attire to business casual, but an occasional “Aloha” shirt dots the crowd.  Civilians stand with veterans and active duty military at attention.  This is my first arrival ceremony as an employee of JPAC, and I immediately follow suit.  Other than the rapid opening and closing of the shutter on the photographer’s camera, there is complete silence.

For years, so many families have been waiting for their men to come home.  Some, like Eddie, had died waiting.  To outsiders, these families are our clients.  To us, they are people.  People who have sacrificed their loved ones, many for wars they never fully understood.  They sacrificed futures and lives with their loved ones and were left with nothing to show for it – no obituary, no body, no box – until now.

The color guard ushers in each casket, adorned with an American flag.  As the sixth and final casket is escorted to a bus for transport to the JPAC Central Identification Lab (CIL), a coworker leans towards me and says, “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

The skeletal elements from each casket were transferred to a box, which was given an accession, or case number.  These case numbers were added to our already long list of case numbers.  Our job is to turn these numbers into names.  We definitely had our work cut out for us.

Before we even got to the lab doors, skeletal elements that had been cleared for mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sampling had sections taken out of them and their sequences uploaded to our computer network.  The sequences are matched to family reference samples (mtDNA samples taken from the surviving relatives of the unidentified).  Matches are made based on shared differences at a particular numbered region of the mtDNA.  About 80 percent of the unidentified or missing military men have had relatives donate a reference sample with the hopes of finding their match.  It’s not 100 percent, but it’s not half bad, so to speak.

As accession boxes come into the lab, we tag each element with its box number.  Each element is then grouped together by mtDNA sequences.  mtDNA is passed down maternally and is not individual specific.  This means that even once elements are grouped by the same mtDNA sequence, those elements still usually represent more than one individual.  Sampling is simply a way to whittle down the list of the unidentified by particular sequences.  Much of our job is to exclude matches.  Nothing is exact in science, but being able to exclude possibilities can be the most powerful means of finding your man in the game of Clue.

A certain level of ambiguity is immediately apparent by a repetition of elements.  For example, two left femora (thigh bones) means we have the opportunity to bring together and provide closure to more than one family.

Once a report is written, noting exactly which elements share a common mtDNA sequence, we start going down the list of possible individuals with that sequence.  Beyond sampling, the real problem solving takes place.

While psychic abilities would really come in handy for this job, I am left to rely on my training in human skeletal biology and anthropology.  There’s no way to do this work without keeping a detective’s eye out for any possible clues that could aid in identification.  Historical records and archived witness testimonies regarding the loss of an individual are scrutinized.  Every observable detail about the skeletal elements I have in front of me is recorded.  Measurements for statistical analyses are taken and elements are compared against one another.  Attention to detail, an understanding of biology and general biomechanics, and math make a really good combination for this type of work. How else were we to figure out if the “knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone,” and even more difficult, if the thigh bone could be related to the arm bone?  These analyses help to exclude elements from each other. Once this step is complete, another report is written for each set of elements I determine to be a single individual.  The set is then given its own individual case number.

You can tell a lot about the physical make-up of a person, and sometimes even how they lived, just from their bones.  A profile is created from detected nuances in the bones. Using particular elements to determine the sex and ancestry of the individual, taking measurements to get a range for the individual’s height and observing developmental characteristics to obtain an age range, I gain some understanding of who this person was.  I recognize the differences between normal human variances in bone and slight abnormalities that could aid in identification.  Was the person really muscular?  Had they ever broken their arm or had a cavity filled? If medical and dental records are available, the profile is compared to them.

It is important to keep in mind how extensive a profile can be depends on the number and type of skeletal elements that are in front of me.  The fewer the elements and the less “diagnostic” the type of elements, the less complete a profile can be and the more pressure there is to find clarity in even greater ambiguity.

Jack was not meant to be a number – a statistic.  He was a person.  He was a good student, loved cars and had a strong presence in the lives of those he touched.  He was a son, a brother, a friend.  He was a boy sent off to war to play the part of a soldier and he was lost.  There are around 83,000 U.S. military men still unaccounted for worldwide.  There are so many families who still wait for the closure that comes with their loved ones returning home.

Evidence recovered from the Prometheus crash site in Laos was returned to the United States and underwent JPAC’s rigorous identification process.  It was determined that several of the remains belonged to Jack.  On April 26, 2008, 36 years after Jack’s disappearance, the Pearce family accepted his remains.  He was interred beside his father later that year.  Their joint gravestone reads:

Separated by a generation fought in different wars, both shot down from the skies.  The father, a prisoner of war, returned to fall in love, raise five children and live a long life.

The son’s remains were returned thirty-six years after he was shot down, to be laid to rest with his father, who had never stopped searching for him.

At the end of everything – the sampling, the sorting, the observation, looking at maps and records, taking measurements, entering data for statistical analyses, creating a detailed profile of the individual, comparing any anomalies to medical and dental records, working lunches, long hours and racked brains – there is no guarantee of identification.  But there is always the satisfaction that we are doing our utmost to work towards a common and noble goal.  We are there to honor the lost, but also to provide some closure to the living.  We are there to take an accession number, differences in the numbered regions of mtDNA, individual case numbers, and measurements from a number of skeletal elements to form a conclusion. We are there to turn a number into a name.


“I am fortunate to have lived a long life. It seems that most of my adult life has been spent searching for answers about Jack and hoping that he would come home and walk through my door. After thirty-six years, it is very difficult to accept the death of my son, but it is a comfort to know that he has finally been brought home and at rest with his father.”  – Rosemary Pearce




Photos provided by Jessica Pearce Rotondi, 2012.