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How heroes come home | A look at the science that helped identify fallen Southern Illinois soldiers

American Flag and POW MIA Flag (Adam S. Keck/WikiCommons)

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), which identifies fallen U.S. service members of past wars, made positive identifications of two Southern Illinoisans who have recently been brought back home for burial.

U.S. Army Air Forces Tech. Sgt. James M. Howie of Chester and Tech. Sgt. Harold Kretzer of Odin were positively identified by the DPAA last summer through advances in identification science and technology.

“In the U.S., we believe that when you sacrifice your whole life for the good of our country, you deserve to be identified and not remain unknown; we believe families have the right to know that their loved-ones are accounted-for and where they can be visited; and finally, we believe our current day military deserves to see that we leave no one behind,” said Forensic Anthropologist and Project Lead Dr. Megan Ingvoldstad, who was responsible for organizing and overseeing the efforts of the DPAA to identify the two Southern Illinois natives, among others.

The DPAA consists of hundreds of people, military and civilian alike, who work daily in labs, offices, archives, and in the field, to help bring everyone home. Sgt. Kretzer and Sgt. Howie, who were buried back in their home state earlier this year, are two such former MIAs no longer considered missing in action.

“The work to identify remains of U.S. service members who have died in past conflicts has existed in varying forms since WWII and the Korean War. More recently, DPAA embarked upon the specific challenge of identifying the unaccounted-for servicemembers from Operation Tidal Wave,” Ingvoldstad said.

Operation Tidal Wave was an air campaign targeting oil refineries of the Axis Power in Romania. It was believed that if oil production could be disrupted, Ingvoldstad explains, the war could have ended sooner.

But the Romanian refinery was heavily fortified and defended, and Allied Powers casualties were heavy. Only 55 of the 177 bombers who flew in Operation Tidal Wave returned, and 310 Americans were lost, including Howie and Kretzer.

Howie, who worked aboard a B-24 Liberator bomber as a radio operator, went down with the aircraft on Aug. 1, 1943, after the craft was shot by anti-aircraft guns. Kretzer, who served aboard a B-24 also, died on the same day during Operational Tidal Wave in Romania.

Local Romanians buried the deceased airmen, trying as best they could to document and identify air crew, but it would be nearly 80 years later when the 88 caskets would start to be identified by the use of advanced DNA technology.

“Those unknown remains stayed there until 2017. By that time, most of the unaccounted-for Operation Tidal Wave service member families had provided the DNA reference samples needed to hopefully link those unknown remains to specific individuals,” said Ingvoldstad.

In the summer of 2022, 88 caskets of unknown remains arrived at DPAA’s Offutt Laboratory to begin scientific analyses, including Howie’s and Kretzer’s.

The process to make identification possible requires more than just a dental record or material marker like dog tags, which were utilized in the past. Today, the DPAA has an involved process to make as certain as possible the identification of the remains of soldiers, sailors, and airmen are accurate.

“Multiple lines of evidence are required to make an identification,” said Ingvoldstad, who explained that remains generally arrive at DPAA laboratories either through the disinterment of unknown remains buried in U.S. military cemeteries around the world or through archaeological recoveries by teams in the field. Then, both processes begin with a thorough research by DPAA historians. This research narrows down the list of possible candidates that could be recovered from a specific grave or archaeological site.

“Once received in the lab, remains receive all appropriate types of analysis including anthropological, odonatological, histological, isotopic, genetic, and radiographic analyses,” Ingvoldstad explained.

The evidence and data must all point to a single individual to make a positive identification, but by far the most powerful data is found in DNA.

“DNA carries a huge amount of weight in making current identifications because of its ability to specify a single individual sometimes with extremely high statistical probabilities,” Ingvoldstad said. “In addition to providing a positive line of evidence towards one identification, DNA is also heavily replied upon to exclude other potential candidates. Therefore, it is extremely valuable when family members submit DNA samples for comparison to remains in our laboratories.

“Specifically, it was DNA obtained from cells still present in his (Kretzer’s) bones after 78 years that made it clear that these remains were not those of anyone else,” Ingvoldstad said in reference to the identification of Kretzer’s remains. “Thanks to cheek swabs provided by his family members, we could now know that these remains were unequivocally those of T Sgt. Kretzer, the engineer from Missing Air Crew Report 2410. Because of those donated DNA samples, we knew that he had multiple family members who were still looking for him.”

For the DPAA, there is still much work to be done, because there are so many more service members who are MIA.

“About 81,000 U.S. service members remain unaccounted for from past conflicts (the majority are from WWII),” Ingvoldstad said, and added that about 37,000 are forever lost in the sea’s abyss.

Including Howie and Kretzer, the DPAA has made over half the identifications of the 80 unknowns of Operation Tidal Wave. The work is not easy. Making identifications from fragments and mixed up remains makes for difficult work, Ingvoldstad said, but the DPAA is committed to the challenge of identifying those who served so bravely and sacrificed their lives for their country during the air raids over the Romanian.

“We will continue to work until they are all home,” Ingvoldstad said.

Along with Howie and Kretzer, the remains of a Carbondale native who served in WWII were also recently identified.

Commander Frederick R. Schrader, born in Carbondale and raised in Lawrenceville, left Illinois to join the U.S. Naval Academy after high school and went on to serve in World War II as a naval aviator. Schrader’s plane was shot down during an attack on Toko Seaplane Base on Formosa in 1944.

“My father’s remains had been buried as Unknown 136 at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (NMCP) since they were returned to the U.S. in 1949,” said Barbara Canavan, Schrader’s daughter. “The search by family, a group of researchers, who are a part of the USS Hornet Museum, and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency came to fruition last September in the identification of the remains of Unknown 136 as my father’s. The whole search has been a blessed miracle.”

Schrader was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Purple Heart. He received a proper military burial in April at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.


(c) 2023 The Southern Illinoisan

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