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One family lost 2 sons during WWII. It took 80 years to bring the last soldier home.

Military labs identify fallen soldiers
Military labs identify long-fallen soldiers 02:54

Elsie Thompson, the youngest of seven children, lost two brothers during World War II. Her sibling Phillip Engesser was returned home to be laid to rest, but her oldest brother, Marcus Engesser, is only just being brought back to his California hometown more than 80 years after his death thanks to an identification by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. 

Engesser served in Company L of the 31st Infantry Regiment during World War II, operating in the Philippines. He was captured following the American surrender of the Bataan Peninsula in April 1942, the DPAA said, and forced on the Bataan death march before being interned in a notorious prison camp. He died of malaria in September 1942 and his remains were buried in a mass grave at the camp. Over 2,800 American soldiers died at the camp before its liberation in 1945, the agency said. 

Marcus Engesser. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency

In 1947, that grave was exhumed and the U.S. Army attempted to identify the soldiers buried there. At the time, most of the remains were considered unidentifiable, and they were buried at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial as Unknowns. Engesser's name was engraved on the Walls of the Missing at the cemetery.

Thompson, 92, remembered Engesser as a "good" and "handsome" older brother. It was difficult for her family, she said, to never have his remains. Thompson's daughter, Joanne Smith, even remembered her grandmother writing a letter to the Army searching for Engesser's body so he could be buried alongside family. 

"My mother went through a lot because she lost several sons during the war," Thompson told CBS News. "I think it was pretty hard on my mom. (Marcus) is the only one, we didn't have any material of him." 

In 2018, the unknown remains buried at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial were disinterred again to be studied by the DPAA. Mitochondrial DNA analysis, dental and anthropological analysis, and other evidence allowed scientists at the DPAA's laboratory to positively identify some of the remains as belonging to Engesser in 2023. Thompson told CBS News that she was informed of the identification in 2024, and said that the closure is "wonderful." 

"It was emotional to hear what was going on with Marky," said Thompson, adding that she plans to place Engesser's remains with her mother, brothers and other family members. "It's been quite an experience." 

What is the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency? 

Thompson is just one of the thousands of people who have their family members' remains returned to them through the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. The agency accounted for 158 missing soldiers last year. The identifications bring closure to families, and offer a chance for fallen soldiers to be buried at home. 

The call to identify and recover fallen soldiers was brought to the forefront of the nation's conscience during the Vietnam War, according to Ashley Wright, a public affairs specialist with the DPAA. The United States has "always tried to account for our missing," Wright said, starting with the American Graves Registration Command after World War II. That command would try to make identifications based on the best available science at the time, Wright said.

As science has evolved, though, so have recoveries and identifications. There are about 72,000 soldiers from World War II, about 7,500 from the Korean War, and more than 1,550 from the Vietnam War that are still unaccounted. But from the first Gulf Wars, there are just six soldiers unaccounted for, Wright said, and there are no unaccounted for soldiers from the war in Afghanistan. Technology has had a large role in recent conflicts ensuring soldiers are identified and returned home.

"It's just a sharp decline with each conflict," Wright said. "The cases that we're working on now are not the easy slam dunks, or they would have been solved prior. These are hard cases. These are tough cases. ... We're just continuing to do what we can to bring these families answers." 

How does the DPAA identify fallen soldiers? 

Wright said that "history, diplomacy and science intersect" to help the DPAA laboratory make identifications. 

The process starts with history: Researchers and experts in the agency start by combing through archival records to learn as much as they can about where a fallen soldier was last seen. Investigative teams will travel to the area to talk to any surviving witnesses and examine the area to look for clues to confirm if someone went missing there. 

The agency operates in 46 countries, with just one outlier: North Korea. The diplomacy is even small-scale enough to connect with individual locals, Wright said, since sometimes a fallen soldier may have vanished on what is now private land.  

Korean War POW identified, buried near fellow vet and friend 04:49

Once the DPAA researchers have determined they're in the right spot, a recovery mission is sent to the area. These teams of 15 to 25 people, Wright said, included explosive ordnance disposal experts who can handle live ammunition that may be on the scene. Medical personnel, senior recovery experts and forensic photographers are also part of these groups, and up to 100 locals may be involved with the physical work of digging and searching for remains. Recovery missions spend 30 to 60 days on the ground, Wright said, before returning to the DPAA laboratory. 

Back at the lab, multiple scientific techniques are used to try and identify fallen soldiers. Forensic odontologists, or dentists who can look at medical records and compare them to teeth found in the field, can match dental evidence to the profiles of missing soldiers. Other unique bones, like clavicles, are compared. For soldiers who disappeared during the Korean War, experts compare tuberculosis skin test results taken before someone shipped out to the remains found. 

The remains are then laid out and X-rayed to be matched further, other forms of analysis include mitochondrial DNA analysis and isotope analysis, which can determine what a person was eating decades ago. This can help identify the remains of American soldiers - who typically ate a corn-based diet - from the remains of locals who may have eaten differently. The DPAA has also collected comparison DNA from family members, like Thompson.

Once a fallen soldier has been likely identified, family members are asked for a reference sample of DNA. Finally, a medical examiner will sign off on a report making the identification, and service casualty officers then reach out to family members for a full briefing. 

The process is painstaking and long. Families can spend decades wondering what happened to their loved one, Wright said, like Thompson did. 

"Every case is different and faces its own challenges, and every case is special," Wright said. "Every single one of these cases has a family member. Every single one of those has a comrade-in-arms who still wonders what happened to them. That number is definitely not lost on us in any way, shape or form." 

Members of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency carry a transfer case during a repatriation ceremony for service members missing in action from the battle of Tarawa, Republic of Kiribati, July 25, 2017.
Members of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency carry a transfer case during a repatriation ceremony for service members missing in action from the battle of Tarawa, Republic of Kiribati, July 25, 2017. Defense Department/William Dasher

Bringing closure to families 

Wright said that the DPAA's goal is to bring closure to family members and loved ones like Thompson and Smith. Once family members are told about the identification of their loved one, the military works with the families to conduct a burial with full military honors. 

"Even if we just find and make an identification of a single tooth, they will get full military honors because they made that ultimate sacrifice," Wright said. 

Smith said that having this closure has been "amazing" for her family and said she is honored that her uncle will receive a full military funeral. She said that she and Thompson would be able to meet the plane bringing Engesser's remains to California on the tarmac. They also received Engesser's medals. 

"My grandmother went through so much ... After all these years, to have it full circle, to have (Engesser) come home and be buried with his mom, it just means a lot," Smith said. "I'm so thankful that my mom was alive to see this happen. I know it means a lot to her to have her brother back on American soil." 

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