When Brenda Lee McCullough, director of U.S. Army Installation Management Command-Pacific, and IMCOM-Pacific Command Sgt. Maj. Jon Williams toured the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing In Action Accounting Agency at their facility on Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam on Sept. 28, 2023, they got a chance to learn about the work DPAA is doing to fulfill the Department of Defense’s sacred duty to bring home America’s missing across the Indo-Pacific and around the world.
During the tour, the DPAA team shared detailed information about how they conduct investigations and recovery missions for fallen heroes from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War to provide the fullest possible accounting for missing personnel to their families and the Nation.
A key part of the tour highlighted recent DPAA recovery efforts in the lagoon at Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. U.S. Army Garrison Kwajalein Atoll, one of the Army installations managed by IMCOM-Pacific, is supporting ongoing DPAA recovery efforts there.
“Touring the DPAA facility was informative and tremendously rewarding, especially knowing that our team members in the Pacific are actively supporting efforts to help return America’s fallen heroes to their families,” said McCullough.
Recovery efforts in Kwajalein Atoll began with a grassroots, volunteer organization known as the Kwajalein Missing in Action Project.
At some point, nearly all of the KMP’s members have lived and worked at USAG Kwajalein Atoll, which currently has approximately 1,300 U.S. personnel, including active-duty military, Department of Defense civilians, and contractors.
The KMP operates under the non-profit American Legion Richard B. Anderson Memorial Post 44, which helps with fundraising to acquire specialized sonar and diving equipment necessary to carry out searches.
Dan Farnham, a founding member of the KMP, explained that their efforts initially began in 2011 as the Kingfisher Project with the search for an OS2U Kingfisher scout aircraft that was shot down on Jan. 31, 1944.
“As time went on, our research indicated that there were nine aircraft in the lagoon from World War II with a total of 12 MIAs. In March of 2015, we renamed the Kingfisher Project to the Kwajalein MIA Project to reflect the expanded scope,” said Farnham.
“I like to think of this as a team effort. It’s the support of the Garrison, the Kwajalein community, and the members of the KMP that drive us forward,” said Farnham.
Since starting the search for the Kingfisher in 2011, the KMP has successfully located four of the nine aircraft believed to have gone down in the lagoon.
The KMP begins the process of locating aircraft by using any available source of information they can find that might help indicate where to concentrate their search efforts.
“We look for any period magazine articles; we look at squadron diaries and squadron reports; we try to interview any veterans that were around at the time; we even use technical manuals and diagrams to help us identify wreckage,” said Farnham.
When they have a good idea of where to start, the KMP volunteers boat out into the lagoon and use side-scan sonar to map the seafloor, which helps pinpoint possible aircraft wrecks. When possible aircraft wreckage is found with the sonar, scuba dives confirm the presence of the aircraft.
One of the aircraft found by the KMP was a PB2Y-3 Coronado sea plane, named “Gunga Din” by the crew, which went down on Sep. 14, 1944.
When the KMP locates an aircraft in the lagoon and confirms it is one of the WWII planes that could potentially hold the remains of U.S. MIA service members, they contact the DPAA to begin the process of thoroughly and respectfully excavating the wreckage for remains.
To assist with the Coronado in summer 2023, DPAA contracted Project Recover, an organization that specializes in deep-water excavations.
According to their website, Project Recover is “a collaborative effort to enlist 21st century science and technology in a quest to find and repatriate Americans missing in action since World War II, in order to provide recognition and closure for families and the Nation.”
Due to the remote location of Kwajalein Atoll and limited available facilities, the Project Recover team relied on support from USAG Kwajalein Atoll and members of the community for some of their basic needs.
“The assistance of some of the folks on the base helped tremendously. We would not have been able to complete the mission without that support,” said Daniel O’Brien, Project Recover’s administrator and Chief Financial Officer.”
According to O’Brien, recovery and excavation operations are normally self-contained on a single vessel, which was not the case during the summer 2023 recovery mission.
“A couple of people on the base were very gracious with their private boats. They helped to get us out to the dive platform, which was two miles offshore, and back to shore,” said O’Brien.
While the Project Recover team was in the RMI, the USAG Kwajalein Atoll commander, Col. Drew Morgan, had the opportunity to see their efforts first-hand.
“We have had several DPAA sponsored, researched and funded missions throughout Kwajalein Atoll. I was privileged to visit the site of one of their projects in our lagoon here. We have a team of dedicated volunteers, as part of Kwajalein MIA Project, that provide invaluable grassroots level research to make DPAA’s resources more effective – providing teams with information they gather from hundreds of hours of their own time. I’m proud of Kwaj’s place in American history and I’m especially proud of DPAA’s work throughout the world, honoring the Nation’s commitment to our service members, no matter how long it takes, or how arduous the task to bring them home,” said Morgan.
Recovery efforts are ongoing in the lagoon at Kwajalein Atoll.
IMCOM-Pacific, headquartered at Fort Shafter on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, oversees 10 U.S. Army Garrisons and one joint base Army Support Activity, supporting nearly 300,000 U.S. military-affiliated personnel at more than 125 installation sites in four countries – the United States, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the Republic of the Marshall Islands – an area six times larger than the Continental United States spanning 20 million square miles.
IMCOM-Pacific’s multidiscipline workforce of military installation management professionals – consisting of Soldiers, Department of the Army Civilians, contractors, and local national team members – serve at Army garrisons from Alaska to the Marshall Islands and from Hawaii to East Asia.