Improved forensic techniques and DNA testing can now reliably identify war dead that the military once thought would remain forever anonymous. But the advance comes with a twist: The same technology that can name the nameless can also reveal mix-ups and blunders that caused service members to be buried in the wrong graves.
After World War II, the U.S. military had to sort out the remains of nearly 300,000 war dead. Most were sent home to families or buried overseas in marked graves. But about 8,500 sets of remains could not be identified at the time. These were buried in American military cemeteries under precise rows of marble markers bearing only the word “Unknown.”
For years, those tidy rows have concealed a messy history. The identification process was at times so haphazard and ham-handed that it left identifiable men unaccounted for, or worse, sent them to the wrong families.