Recovering remains of lost soldiers a tough task

Recovering remains of lost soldiers a tough task
A voter casting her ballot during the election in Jayapura in Papua province on April 9. The search is on for the 1,891 World War II American servicemen still missing in Indonesian territory. Most of the remains are believed to lie in Papua, but getting approval to visit the eastern province is difficult for diplomats and journalists alike.

Back in late 2005, the pilot of a mining company helicopter spotted the wreckage of what turned out to be a converted World World II B-25 bomber and the remains of its eight occupants lying on a rocky shelf in Papua's Central Highlands.

The United States Pacific Command's Joint Casualty Resolution Centre in Hawaii was duly notified, but because of pressure from the families, most of its search teams were spending all their time looking for those missing in action (MIA) from the Indochina War.

Two years passed before I took it on myself to ask visiting defence secretary William Cohen why it was taking so long to recover the bodies when they were in clear sight at the bottom of a 300m cliff face. Within weeks, a team arrived to affect the recovery.

After five decades, relatives laid to rest the three-man crew and five passengers - some of the victims of a staggering 14,000 US planes which went down across New Guinea during and after the Pacific War.

How times have changed. Now, with Congress urging that all theatres of conflict should be treated the same, the search is on for the 1,891 World War II American servicemen still missing in Indonesian territory. That number alone is more than those missing at the end of the Indochina War. But it pales in comparison to the 83,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen who have remained in unknown graves from World War II and the 1950-1953 Korean conflict.

Reconstituted since 2003 as the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), with the Central Identification Laboratory Centre under its umbrella, the Hawaii-based recovery unit must now meet a legislated target of recovering 200 remains a year.

It might not seem a lot, particularly with an additional US$300 million (S$376 million) budget. But a closer examination of what it takes to identify burial sites on foreign soil and the logistics that go into the actual recovery make it a seriously difficult task.

While old enemies Laos and Vietnam and openly hostile North Korea have assisted in the global effort with much less fuss, Indonesia has presented so many hurdles that only when Secretary of State John Kerry visited recently has the US gained some traction.

It is the usual bureaucratic red tape. First, the US was initially turned down when it applied to the Ministry of Technology and Research for a research permit, ostensibly because it did not meet the criteria. That has apparently now been resolved.

Next, the Americans must sign a memorandum of understanding with the Education and Culture Ministry under which they nominate a local sponsor, either a non-government organisation or perhaps the Indonesian military, to partner them.

But an even bigger challenge may yet lie in getting dispensation from a little-known law passed in 2009 which determines that any object that has been on Indonesian soil for more than 25 years belongs to Indonesia.

That apparently also applies to the remains of long-dead soldiers, which one senior culture official has rather callously described as barang- barang, suku-cadang budaya, or literally "cultural artefacts".

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