Watch CBS News

After 7 decades, remains of WWII GI could soon be coming home

JPAC’s efforts to identify the remains of America’s war dead have been criticized as slow and ineffective
JPAC faces lawsuit for failure to ID remains of American soldiers 02:42

Army Private Arthur "Bud" Kelder's journey home has been a long one - 72 years long.

Kelder was one of 75,000 Filipino and American troops captured during World War II by Japanese forces on the Bataan Peninsula, and forced to march to a prison camp near Cabanatuan. The six-day trek, known as the Bataan Death March, claimed the lives of hundreds of Americans. Kelder survived the march, but succumbed to disease at a Japanese POW camp at the age of 26. He and 13 others were buried in a communal grave as unknowns.

"The term [the government] used in all official communication was 'non recoverable,'" Kelder's cousin, John Eakin told CBS News in an interview earlier this year. "And everyone thought that meant there were no remains to return. In those days everyone trusted the government. No one asked any further questions."

But Eakin started asking questions and for five years has been demanding answers from the Department of Defense agency responsible for bringing back missing U.S. serviceman, the Joint POW/MIA Command or JPAC.

In 2009 Eikin began studying declassified documents related to the Cabanatuan Prisoner of War Camp in Luzon and learned that the U.S. government knew where Kelder's remains were all along. From a military personnel file, he learned that meticulous records were kept at Cabanatuan and those records indicated that his cousin died on November 19, 1942 and had been buried in Common Grave 717. Yet, the Kelder family was never informed. CBS News first reported the story of Private Kelder and Common Grave 717 in March.

After the war, an Army Grave Registration Crew disinterred the remains of the camp cemetery, including Common Grave 717. Four of the 14 men buried inside were identified. But even though the Grave Registration Crew knew the names of all 14 men, they couldn't confirm the identities of the other 10 sets of remains. As a result, those men were buried as unknowns in the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines.

Since Eakin uncovered the information five years ago, he has been trying to get JPAC to disinter and identify all 10 sets of unknown remains from that gravesite, but has been repeatedly denied. Until now.

In a statement to CBS News, Navy Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost, a Defense Department spokeswoman, says those 10 unknown sets of remains could soon be headed to JPAC's lab in Hawaii for identification.

"Based upon forensic and historical input from JPAC and DPMO, this month the Army concurred with the recommendation to disinter unknown remains referred to as "X-816", as well as the other unknown remains previously interred in Common Grave 717, given the probability the remains are commingled. Planning is underway and the timeline is still being worked. The disinterment decision was based upon a forensic and historical review by JPAC and DoD that included a number of factors, to include the development of new techniques not available in the 1940s and 1950s (e.g., osteometric sorting, DNA analysis, etc.) and the possibility of multiple identifications if all ten Unknowns are disinterred."

In a statement, the Kelder family tells CBS News that they are "overjoyed to learn that the U.S. Department of Defense is finally going to return the remains of our missing family member for burial."

But their joy is tempered by skepticism. The family questions the motives and timing behind JPAC's latest decision reversal regarding the remains of Common Grave 717.

In a letter dated January 28, 2013 the head of JPAC's Central Identification Lab, Dr. Thomas Holland wrote of the remains, "While it is possible that one or more individual identifications could be realized if all the Unknown Remains from this incident were disinterred for analysis, the existing and available data do not meet the level of scientific certainty required by current DoD disinterment guidance."

Two days later, Major General Kelly McKeague, JPAC's commander, concurred with Dr. Holland's conclusion writing in a memo, "The challenge is that this case does not meet current Department of Defense policy for disinterment of Unknown Remains in that no reasonable association of the Unknown Remains to a specific individual can be established with a high degree of certainty prior to approval for disinterment."

Eakin filed a lawsuit against JPAC, demanding a return of his cousin's remains. As part of the trial's discovery, all the internal reports associated with Kelder's case were requested. At least one of those reports, which he got from a third party, recommended disinterment.

In 2012 JPAC's then Deputy Chief of World War II investigations Rick Stone was asked to examine the Common Grave 717 case. In his reports, copies of which CBS News obtained, Stone recommended that all 10 unknowns be disinterred and the remains "...should produce a multiple number of identifications, if not complete resolution of all the missing casualties."

Yet, when Eakin asked JPAC attorneys about Stone's reports, the agency told him that they "do not exist, or are not properly part of the record."

When we asked JPAC about the Stone reports earlier this year, their spokesperson told us that because of ongoing litigation with Eakin, JPAC could not offer comment on the case. Eakin suspects that lawsuit factors into this latest decision to disinter.

"This exhumation is not because of a forensic and historical review by JPAC. Our family provided the evidence of these identities nearly five years ago and the Department of Defense has consistently denied that these remains were those of the men they now admit that they are. These remains are being exhumed from their graves in the Manila American Cemetery only because the Department of Defense is required to produce them in a Federal Court proceeding," the family said in a statement.

Because of what they call a pattern of lies and deceit surrounding this case, Kelder's family is asking JPAC to allow a member of their family to escort the remains back from the Philippines, and they say they would like independent experts to observe the identification process.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.