Dover Air Force Base to play role in identifying Korean War remains

Lab technicians work in the DNA Accession Lab at Dover Air Force Base. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — Last week, 55 boxes of remains, presumed to be U.S. war dead from the Korean War, landed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii.

The return of the remains was part of an agreement reached between North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un and President Trump during a June summit.

The symbolic gesture has quickly gained international attention and Dover Air Force Base has a role to play in the identification of the remains.

Dover Air Force Base is home to the Department of Defense’s only human remains DNA testing laboratory, according to Dr. Timothy P. McMahon, director of the lab’s operations for the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System. Dr. McMahon says that in the coming months, DNA samples taken from the 55 boxes will begin to arrive in Dover for analysis.

“The remains just received by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) in Hawaii are being categorized right now by world-renowned anthropologists and odontologists,” he added. “They’re using certain forensic techniques to determine how many individuals may be in each box, because often there can be commingling of bones. Then they will promote samples to be cut and sent to our laboratory for processing.”

Dr. McMahon says samples are usually received within 15 to 30 days after the forensics team begins categorizing them, but that’s only the start of what may be a long, laborious process to identify the remains.

“Full identification can occur within the first few months, or it could take years depending on where the results lead us,” said Dr. McMahon. “If the remains include a skill that has upper teeth and the mandible intact and the dental record is unique in the database, the forensic team my be able to make an identification pretty quickly. But, there can a lot of variables depending on the condition of the remains.”

One variable of specific concern for the Dover lab is the level of degradation the DNA samples may have suffered over the years.

“The easiest way to think about damage to DNA is if I gave you a 16 inch piece of rope and told you to cut it in half for every year it was exposed, by only five years you’d have 32 half-inch pieces — DNA degradation works similarly,” said Dr. McMahon.

How it’s done

The Dover lab uses DNA analysis specifically to produce a “believed to be” report, which is then handed back to the DPAA. From there, the leading medical examiner will review the full forensic report that may include details from the anthropological team such as height, sex, dental records and personal artifacts to issue an official identification, said Dr. McMahon. Once this stage is complete, the branch-specific casualty offices can be altered which will contact the next of kin and begin the repatriation process.

There are 7,699 U.S. service members listed as unaccounted for from the 1950-53 Korean War, of which about 5,300 are believed to have died in North Korea.

On average, Dr. McMahon says, it takes his team of 151 scientists about 55 days between extraction of the sample to producing a report.

The process of identifying U.S. service men and women killed in a war after 1992 by their DNA was made simpler by a “repository act” passed in that year, said Dr. McMahon. For all these service members, a DNA reference card is already on file with the Department of Defense. Before that date, DNA information was not routinely collected so positive identifications must be made through comparisons to certain family members’ DNA.

This can pose an obstacle, but 92 percent of the service members reported missing during the Korean War have some type of family DNA reference in the database. Only 6 percent of service members reported missing during World War II have any DNA reference on file.

Other variables include how the remains were treated after being found.

“There are subsets of samples that were chemically treated with a preservative,” said Dr. McMahon. “At the end of each war, when registry services would try to come in and identify individuals, they would often do this — it was similar to embalming. It was discovered later that this turned out to be very detrimental to DNA samples. We’ve actually been able to develop a mechanism we implemented in 2016 to allow us to get some results from these chemically modified samples. It brought our success rate with these types of samples up to 48 percent — bringing closure to families who may have never got it otherwise.”

Despite obstacles, Dr. McMahon says his lab’s success rate of generating a “mitochondrial DNA sequence” remains at a high 92 percent. Last year, Dr. McMahon says the Dover lab was able to produce 154 “believed to be” reports.

The lab is currently working on approximately 700 samples on a revolving basis including those from the Korean War, Vietnam War (including Cambodia and Laos) and World War II.

More to come?

Dr. McMahon says his lab is pushing ahead to try to produce 200 reports this year. The task of identifying war dead is something that’s become a reverent duty for his staff.

“The samples come in unidentified so we work in the blind, but a few years ago our scientists came forward wanting to know what the ultimate outcome of the identifications were,” said Dr. McMahon. “So, we put up a big map and every month, if there is an official identification supported by DNA (about 80 percent of cases), we put up a picture of the service member and stick a pin in their hometown on our board.

Occasionally, the service casualty office will call to ask us to explain a DNA identification, and we’ll actually send our people out the brief the family. They always come back with a deep understanding of why this work is so important. This is about bringing closure to families who lost a loved one and bringing our heroes home so they can be buried on U.S. soil.”

Unsure of the political future concerning the recent talks between North Korean and U.S. administrations, Dr. McMahon hopes it will result in the release of more service member remains.

“We’re hoping that the thaw in relations will bring more of these remains home to us,” he said. “It’s a great first step, and history has shown us that when talks like this take place in former areas of conflict, it ends up being the first step of many. What I can say, is that we’re here and we’re ready.”

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or


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