Accounting for the Missing of the Pacific War

Endorsed by the OAH-Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians' Collaborative Committee, OHA, and SHFG

Thursday, March 30, 2023, 2:45 PM - 4:15 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Military; Public History and Memory; Theory and Methodology


Over 72,000 Americans killed during the Second World War were never recovered or identified, and it is the stated mission of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) to resolve these cases. Composed of researchers at DPAA and affiliated partners, this panel will highlight the diverse methodologies employed over time to account for missing Americans from the war’s Pacific Theater. In the process, the individual papers will touch on themes of historical memory, colonialism, multilateralism, and the value of multidisciplinary approaches. Gregory Kupsky’s study of POWs in the Philippines highlights one of the earliest accounting efforts, that conducted by the service members themselves. Aware that their own memories were the best sources on the missing, the POWs undertook to record their stories and those of the fallen. After the war, they aided the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) in recovering the missing; they formed associations; and they conducted their own research to continue the work they began in captivity. In the process, they took control of their own narrative while compiling documents vital to the present-day accounting program. Erika Weidemann Bravo examines the joint effort by the Australian and U.S. governments to account for the missing in the Netherlands East Indies. The AGRS and the Royal Australian Air Force Searcher Party employed an information sharing program that culminated in a personnel exchange. Their trading of methods and their sharing of complementary local knowledge helped them to overcome challenges such as difficult terrain and political unrest. Their work is a useful case study of allies as partners in the search for the missing, and it laid the foundation for current collaboration in the accounting effort. Maureen Justiniano discusses the intersection of colonial dynamics with the accounting effort. Though part of the regular U.S. Army since the turn of the twentieth century, the Philippine Scouts faced disparate treatment that extended into the postwar casualty recovery program. Dr. Justiniano discusses the unique difficulties of this work, from inadequate postwar record keeping and investigation to the challenges of DNA collection in the present. She will also assess current strategies for researching this unique, and historically important, group of service members. Alex Peterson and Kimberly Maeyama present a modern-day example of casualty accounting: the interdisciplinary pursuit of the missing from the Battle of Saipan. They demonstrate how historical research, when combined with archaeological study and fieldwork, pave the way for recovering new information—and remains—from the battlefield. They present specific examples of the way that different methodologies combine to advance individual cases and, ultimately, identify missing service members. Taken together, these presentations demonstrate the ways that the casualty accounting effort exemplifies the historian’s craft, the recovery of the past from incomplete and imperfect source material. Commentary from Professor Kurt Piehler will contextualize the papers within the world of World War II scholarship.

Papers Presented

Accounting for Themselves: POWs in the Philippines and the Creation of Casualty Records

In the spring of 1942, after five months of fighting, over 20,000 American and 80,000 Filipino service members in the Philippines fell into Japanese hands. For nearly three years, the fog of war prevented any concerted effort by the U.S. government to account for those lost in combat or in the captivity that followed. Remarkably, the prisoners themselves undertook a massive effort to record the fates of those lost in both combat and captivity. Cognizant of the lack of documentation, and aware that their own deteriorating memories were often the only source material, they set out to compile histories of the fallen while facing disease, violence, and a near-total lack of resources. The result was a collection of records that formed an imperfect but invaluable starting point for further investigation. Following the war, several joined or aided the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) in recovering the remains of the dead. In subsequent decades, others formed associations, penned memoirs, or conducted their own research in an effort to supplement their fading memories and make sense of the loss of fallen friends. This paper will show how service members captured in the Philippines overcame various obstacles to compose the first draft of their history. In a concrete sense, their work made possible the present-day accounting mission of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). In a larger sense, they asserted control of their own narrative, shepherding it past captivity, perceived indifference, and the effects of time.

Presented By
Gregory Kupsky, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency

U.S.-Australian Collaboration in the Search for the Missing in the Netherlands East Indies, 1945-1949

American servicemembers saw action throughout the entirety of the Netherlands East Indies (NEI), known today as Indonesia. American air, sea, and land forces defended the islands at the beginning of World War II and then retook Dutch New Guinea and the surrounding area as part of their island-hopping strategy in the Pacific. At the close of World War II, the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) faced unique challenges in its search for the missing in the NEI. Political unrest amid a growing independence movement restricted the AGRS’s ability to freely travel throughout the region. In the Netherlands East Indies, the AGRS’s success was the result of collaboration with Australian officials. Australian teams not only provided American officials with information on the location of potential American gravesites, but also provided expertise and assistance. In 1946, this partnership expanded to include an exchange of personnel. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Searcher Party included an American official during its searches in New Guinea. This decision was based on the expectation that shared knowledge would result in better success as the Australian team had advanced knowledge of the area due to an earlier start in the search for their missing. Using AGRS records from the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, as well as literature on the RAAF Searcher Party and the AGRS, this study highlights the benefits of collaboration between allies in the search for those missing in action.

Presented By
Erika Lee Weidemann Bravo, Texas A&M University

Forgotten Soldiers: The Philippine Scouts and the Search for their Missing from World War II

The Philippine Scouts, despite serving both as American colonial agents of pacification in the early twentieth-century Philippines and later as a formidable U.S. Army ground force in the Pacific Theater, are often relegated to a mere footnote in the annals of modern U.S. history. A lack of understanding of their complex history has deprived these individuals of the recognition they deserve and their proper place in history, which is why it is more crucial than ever to focus on accounting for their missing. However, such a noble mission poses unique challenges that this paper will strive to address. To demonstrate the complexity of such an endeavor and why accounting for missing Philippine Scouts is such a unique case, this paper first examines their background, particularly their induction into the U.S. Army and divergent treatment. This continued after the war, when the usual challenges of recovery operations in the Philippines, such as the loss of burial records and the destruction of graves owing to indiscriminate enemy bombing, were compounded by a lack of recordkeeping for Scout enlisted men and a less concerted investigative effort by the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS). These challenges, along with the current difficulty of acquiring DNA family reference samples from overseas, only make the present-day accounting effort for missing Philippine Scouts a more daunting task to undertake.

Presented By
Maureen Justiniano, SNA International

The Battle for Saipan: The Search for Unaccounted-for Service Members

In June and July 1944, U.S. forces participated in the battle for the Saipan Island, part of the larger operation to secure the Mariana Islands. It was the largest and most complex amphibious assault in the Pacific at the time, involving personnel from all the services. The invasion force, which included over 70,000 troops of the 2d and 4th Marine Divisions, the Army’s 27th Infantry Division, and other units, landed against a nearly 30,000-strong Japanese contingent. Over the course of the operation, a large number of defenders were killed, with American ground casualties numbering 2,949 killed and 10,464 wounded. Approximately 158 of the U.S. casualties are considered unresolved. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) has a dedicated project to pursue unresolved losses associated with Saipan. This project demonstrates the value of an interdisciplinary approach that includes historical research and historical archaeology; investigations that require archaeological fieldwork; archaeological recovery; and forensic assessment at DPAA laboratories. This paper focuses on the preliminary stages of case development, discussing how an historical archaeological approach disentangles complex narratives and memories of conflict to pursue resolution of unaccounted for service members. Part one of the discussion provides an overview of the Saipan operation and the methodology used to pursue ground losses. The second part presents specific case studies, highlighting how historical research with an archaeological focus improves our understanding of the circumstances of losses; aids in the pursuit of those losses; and possibly contributes to resolving casualties from complex and dynamic fields of battle.

Presented By
Alex Peterson, SNA InternationalKimberly Maeyama, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: G. Kurt Piehler, Florida State University
G. Kurt Piehler is Director of the Institute of World War II and the Human Experience and is Associate Professor of History at Florida State University. He is author of A Religious History of the American GI in World War II (University of Nebraska Press, 2021), Remembering War the American Way (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995, reprint ed., 2004) and World War II (Greenwood Press, 2007) in the American Soldiers’ Lives series. He has edited multiple reference works and compilations, including The Encyclopedia of Military Science (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and The United States and the Second World War: New Perspectives on Diplomacy, War, and the Home Front (Fordham University Press, 2010). He previously held academic positions at the City University of New York, Drew University, Rutgers University, and The University of Tennessee. He received his master’s degree and doctorate from Rutgers University.

Presenter: Maureen Justiniano, SNA International
Maureen Justiniano is currently a WWII Historian with SNA International, supporting the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). Her main research is concentrated on the search and recovery of unaccounted U.S. military personnel in the Philippines during the Pacific War, focusing on the Bataan Death March and Japanese hell ship cases as well as the accounting for the missing soldiers in Mindanao, located at the southern part of the archipelago. Dr. Justiniano received her doctorate in History (specializing in modern Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines) and a master’s degree in Southeast Asian Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Presenter: Gregory Kupsky, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency
Gregory Kupsky is an Historian for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), where he is the research lead for World War II casualties in the Philippines. Dr. Kupsky has published articles in the American Jewish Archives Journal and the Missouri Historical Review, and has contributed to the German Historical Institute’s Immigrant Entrepreneurship project and the Origins e-journal. He received his doctorate in History from The Ohio State University, with a dissertation on German-American responses to National Socialism. He received his master’s degree from The University of Tennessee, where he researched German POWs in the United States, and his undergraduate degree from Knox College.

Presenter: Kimberly Maeyama, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency
Kimberly Maeyama currently serves the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) as an Historian focused on World War II losses in the Northern Marianas and the Republic of Palau. She has over twenty-five years of experience in archaeological research and field work, including over nine years overseeing field work as an Archaeologist for DPAA and its predecessor agency. Dr. Maeyama also specializes in archaeological informatics, Global Positioning System (GPS) mapping, and Geographic Information System (GIS) applications. Past project have included several Cultural Resource Management project as a staff and field archaeologist, predominantly in California. She received her doctorate and her master’s degree from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, and her undergraduate degree at the University of San Diego.

Presenter: Alex Peterson, SNA International
Alex Peterson completed his doctorate in Archaeology with the Carlsberg Foundation-supported subproject to the Danish-German Jerash Northwest Quarter Project, at Aarhus University. He conducted excavations in the Middle East and investigated Medieval Islamic rural settlement and ceramics for several years. Recently, Alex Peterson left academia and accepted a position at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) as an historical archaeologist, where he now aids in the mission to fully account for unresolved war casualties within the Indo-Pacific region.

Presenter: Erika Lee Weidemann Bravo, Texas A&M University
Erika Weidemann Bravo is Texas A&M University’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) Research Partner Historian. She earned her MA and PhD in History from Texas A&M University while serving as a teaching assistant and graduate assistant lecturer. Her dissertation focused on the effects of war on immigration by examining the case of ethnic Germans from Ukraine during World War II and its aftermath. Her book chapter in European Mennonites and the Holocaust was published by University of Toronto Press in conjunction with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2020. Dr. Bravo serves on the editorial review board of Heritage Review, the quarterly publication of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society.