The Lonely Bones
By Amy Wimmer Schwarb and Kathryn Drury Wagner

The team of searchers, dressed in T-shirts and khakis, pullovers and hiking boots, quietly passes bucketfuls of dirt from one pair of mud-caked hands to another, like a fire brigade. Two weeks into their mission, they’ve dug deep enough that their shovels are scooping up dirt flecked with crumbly, oxidized aluminum from the body of a plane. It’s a pale blue, like the color you’d paint a baby boy’s nursery. James Pokines, the forensic anthropologist on the excavation team, pulls from the dirt a small piece of webbing, probably from the pilot’s safety harness. It’s a sign he’s getting closer to the cockpit, closer to what brought him here. Closer to Harry Warnke.

They are working almost 2,500 feet up, in the Koolau Range on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, on terrain that catches the intense wind. The grass is rustling so loudly that it nearly drowns out the sounds of their radio, tuned to 105.9 FM The Big Kahuna, playing a barely audible “Carry on My Wayward Son.” The clouds rush over the mountains, so full of moisture they look white, even as you stand within them. Enveloped in sudden milky clouds, with the visibility dropped to nothing and the wind whipping, you can imagine how a pilot could lose control of a plane in these parts. But the team doesn’t need to determine why Warnke crashed 62 years ago. It just needs to retrieve what’s left of him, and send him home—to Westville, Indiana, where a grave marker etched with his name has stood for decades, waiting.

For the soldiers they seek, time has stopped. But the U.S. military’s bone-diggers, formally known as the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, are still racing against the clock, trying to locate the remains of fallen soldiers before those who cared about them in life have joined them in death. No other country devotes such resources to reclaiming the war dead, identifying them and returning them to their families. From the Korean War, 8,178 American soldiers are missing—195 of them from Indiana; from the Vietnam War, 1,796—57 of them Hoosiers; from the Cold War, 165, including one from Indiana. And from World War II, 78,000 soldiers remain unaccounted for—more than a fifth of all soldiers who fell in that war. About half likely went down over water and will never be recovered; the remaining lie where they fell in frantic firefights, or are embedded in mud where they crashed their aircraft, or are underground, where they were hurriedly buried in mass, unmarked, makeshift graves. Of the 88,000-plus casualties JPAC is charged with finding, 1,353 have been identified and returned to families.

Nearly all of JPAC’s missions carry the teams overseas, to countries with names that remind Americans of wartime heartache: Laos. Vietnam. Cambodia. Papua New Guinea. Until 2004, when diplomatic relations forced JPAC out of the country, teams even manned digs in North Korea. At many destinations, the locals hired to help sift dirt in search of teeth and uniform remnants do not understand the American drive to bring home long-dead soldiers. It’s a pledge that costs the U.S. government $50 million a year.

Given the far-flung places where JPAC usually works, the hunt for Harry Warnke, a World War II fighter pilot killed in dive-bombing training before he ever shipped out, should have been its easiest mission yet. He crashed on American soil, and even after 60 years, the military was fairly certain where Warnke was located: The paperwork filed after his accident specified the spot. But his rescue was logistically difficult because of the inaccessibility of his crash site, and politically tricky because the terrain of the Koolaus is considered sacred by native Hawaiians. So while JPAC combed the deserts of Africa and the jungles of Papua New Guinea in search of missing war dead, the Hoosier pilot and his plane remained wedged into a Hawaiian mountainside. Most ironically, Warnke went down just three miles from present-day Hickam Air Force Base, the headquarters of JPAC, where bones and teeth and dog tags dug up all over the world are matched to the names of missing soldiers.

Of Harry Warnke’s 22 years—21 of them spent in Northwest Indiana—little is known, and less is remembered. Nine people from his high school class of about 200, now in their 80s, were contacted for this story, but few recalled his name, and only one remembered him well.

Warnke was born on August 12, 1921, and grew up in Gary, the son of a steelworker and a homemaker, back when Gary was a company town stocked with good jobs. He and his sister, Myrtle, a year older than he, both enjoyed visiting their grandparents’ farm in Westville, a Lake County hamlet a few miles outside of town.

He lived in a house across from the Emerson High School football field but didn’t play sports, opting instead for the Volcanaires, a local flying club for young people interested in becoming military pilots. “He was one of those boys who never made a ripple in the water and was a real nice kid,” says Evelyn Irak, 85, a classmate of Warnke’s from high school.

Warnke’s sister, now Myrtle Tice, lives in Green Valley, Arizona. She tells stories of her brother—nicknamed “Bud”—in pieces, and can’t always remember the details. He once rode his bicycle from Gary to Paw Paw, Michigan—a 100-mile trek—but Tice doesn’t recall why he went or how her parents reacted. “He just did about everything he wanted to do, I guess,” Tice says. “Let’s just say he was adventurous.” After high school, Warnke attended Gary College for a couple years before enlisting in the U.S. Navy in 1943. His wartime photo shows a slight young man with dark, deep-set eyes and a comfortable smile.

By the time he arrived in Hawaii a few months later, the war in the Pacific was raging. Warnke’s training started off with promise; in June 1944, he qualified to land a plane on an aircraft carrier in the daylight. Five days later, around 8 a.m. on June 15, 1944, with the peaks of the Koolaus covered in fog, Warnke was one of eight pilots who took off from Naval Air Station Barbers Point in single-seat F6F-3 Hellcat fighters. His unit, Fighting Squadron 20, was working on test-dive maneuvers. Warnke made the dive four times, but when the pilots returned to the station, he was not among them.

The men of Fighting Squadron 20 searched the Koolaus for signs of Warnke, and found what they assumed what was their comrade. “The wreckage of Ensign Warnke’s plane, together with a small piece of flesh and one shoe, was found,” his commander, F.E. Bakutis, wrote three weeks later in his report. “Positive identification of Warnke was impossible. The scattered pieces of the plane wreckage were collected and buried on the mountaintop.”

Days later, Fighting Squadron 20 was dispatched overseas. Back in Gary, the Warnkes were told their son’s plane had gone down over the Pacific.
Warnke’s parents lived several more decades, and arranged for a headstone alongside theirs in a small Westville cemetery. The casketless grave is marked, simply, “Lt. Harry ‘Bud’ Warnke.” His parents promoted him—Warnke was an ensign, not a lieutenant.

They never shared with their daughter, Myrtle, any expectation that their son would one day be buried there. But the unspoken message was that if Bud ever came home, he should have a place to come home to.

You can tell a lot about a society, either modern or ancient, by the way it treats its dearly departed. Some cultures revere death; others fear it. Still others have no respect for a body left behind once the soul leaves. Tibetan Buddhists, who view death as an opening for enlightenment, once left their dead for the vultures. After one of their tribe dies, the Mbuti of Africa relocate their camp and never again mention the deceased. Ancient Egyptians were entombed with tools and material goods for use in the afterlife; according to Jewish tradition, bodies are dressed in clothing without pockets, because nothing is needed in the hereafter.

The culture of ancient Hawaii, where Warnke’s body decayed on a mountaintop for 62 years, revered bones, or iwi, and believed they connected individuals to their ancestors. In the Hawaiian language, you don’t bet your life, you “wager your bones.” You don’t ask who will love you when you’re 64; you ponder who will care for your bones. “Bones were treasured, guarded and even deified,” says La’akea Suganuma, president of the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Traditional Arts. According to Suganuma, the bones of alii, or royalty, were carefully hidden, because if an enemy got hold of them, they could be spoiled forever.

The leave-no-man-behind refrain uttered so often by Americans is both age-old and surprisingly modern. Homer’s Iliad, written around 750 B.C., continually revisits the importance of treating soldiers’ dead bodies with dignity. When Patroclus is killed in battle and Achilles falls asleep before his friend’s burial ritual, Patroclus comes to him in a dream and implores him to finish the job. “You’ve forgotten me,” the ghost of Patroclus tells Achilles. “While I was alive, you never did neglect me. But now I’m dead. So bury me as quickly as you can. Then I can pass through the gates of Hades.”

Respect for the war dead transcends cultures. According to Earl Swift, an author who has chronicled the history of JPAC’s recovery operations, 18th-century Shawnee Indians carried off their battle casualties as they dropped, prohibiting white men from even knowing how many they had killed. In the Civil War, both Union and Confederate troops laid down their guns periodically to allow teams to remove the dead from the bloody fields between them.

Yet before the 20th century, and even through World War I, historians theorize, fallen soldiers were thought of more as a collective unit. Soldiers were buried where they fell: There are Confederate graves in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Union graves in Petersburg, Virginia. Mass graves were common—when soldiers were lucky enough to be buried at all. George L. Mosse, the author of Fallen Soldiers, writes that only officers and soldiers from wealthy families were afforded the privilege of a postmortem trip home, partly because of the expense of preservation techniques.

Of course, fallen soldiers were always grieved by the families who loved them. But it wasn’t until World War II that Western cultures began to treat mourned soldiers as individual souls. In post–World War II Germany, that focus was crucial to mourning the dead: Soldiers who fought for a bad cause could be lumped together as weapons of evil, but taken individually, as someone’s beloved child who naively followed a nationalist ideal, their lives seemed more worthy. Americans, meanwhile, lost more than 400,000 soldiers, the great majority of them on the other side of the world. With so many Americans dying on foreign soil, the U.S. government created the American Graves Registration Service to account for the fallen.

Then came Vietnam. And as with so many other facets of American culture, Vietnam changed everything. The residual bitterness over that war pressured the U.S. government to answer for the lives of soldiers who hadn’t returned. Combined with Vietnamese officials’ elusiveness about the whereabouts of missing soldiers, Americans’ 1970s-era distrust of their own government and technological advancements that made recoveries more possible, the modern era of collecting, identifying and returning the war dead was born. The military was charged with retrieving not only the soldiers who fell in Vietnam, but also those missing from the Korean War and World War II. Like Homer’s fallen Trojans and Achaeans, the dead would be buried by their own.

In 1991, retired U.S. Marine Ted Darcy went hiking through the Koolau Mountains in search of a Hellcat fighter he knew was buried in the lush undergrowth. An estimated 1,000 pilots died in flight training in Hawaii, including those who crashed into the Pacific, but Warnke’s body was the only one sitting in a known location that had never been investigated. “The others were recovered after the war,” says Darcy, an aircraft salvager who was hoping to take the plane wreckage after JPAC removed the remains. “Warnke was overlooked.”

Darcy believes Warnke and other unrecovered soldiers from World War II have been slighted by a system that focuses on recovering soldiers who fell in the Vietnam War. Sites in Papua New Guinea and Europe—the resting grounds of World War II soldiers—are investigated less frequently than those in Southeast Asia, even though JPAC is charged with accounting for more than 40 times more soldiers from World War II than from Vietnam. “World War II is lagging,” Darcy says, “and they have the most unknowns.”

In World War II, Hawaii was a testing ground for pilots—and not a terribly safe one. Cavernous ravines, treacherous mountains and low clouds added up to dangerous conditions. “Hawaii was a major training ground,” says aviation historian Colin Perry. “They were crashing planes all the time in those years.” At some points during the war, Perry estimates, two or three pilots were crashing each day, sometimes fatally. Much of what happened in Hawaii during the war was classified, which might help explain why Warnke’s parents were told he was lost at sea.

In the Koolaus, Darcy found the remnants of a one-man Hellcat, crushed and upside down. The aircraft number matched Warnke’s plane, and he immediately alerted JPAC. But the military remained cautious. “Several attempts to locate site, all unsuccessful,” reads the site-investigation summary. “Warning! Area extremely mountainous and steep.”

Frustrated that JPAC wasn’t responding more urgently, Darcy tracked down Warnke’s closest living relative, his sister Myrtle, to tell her his remains were on American soil, not at the bottom of the Pacific. “Basically, she was in a state of shock, but she handled it very well,” Darcy says. “I’ve had next of kin come apart on me. She just asked, ‘What do we do?’” Tice told Darcy she hoped to bring home her brother’s body before she died. At the time, she was 71; today, she is 86.

JPAC encountered steep obstacles to recovering her brother—and not all of them were in the terrain of the Koolaus. By the mid-1990s, resentment against the U.S. government was growing in Hawaii. At the heart of the bitterness was dismay with the military, which occupied hundreds of thousands of pristine Hawaiian acres, and residual anger over the U.S. overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy a century earlier.

For JPAC, it was a bad time to request permission to dig into environmentally sensitive lands—much less land in the Koolau Range, considered sacred territory among native Hawaiians. “He’s in a place that’s so special,” says Mahealani Cypher, an activist who opposed the mission. “I would not mind being buried there. It’s an honor.”

The struggle positioned one federal mandate—one that ensures the government will protect historic and cultural resources—against another, which pledges recovery of fallen soldiers. Because of the opposition, arranging the search took years of planning and seeking permits.

The Warnke case forced JPAC through the hoops of its own government, but for Darcy, the man who discovered the wreckage, the case was life-changing. He is now devoted to his true passion—locating the remains of fallen soldiers from World War II. Using military records, Darcy has constructed databases of missing military personnel and unidentified soldier remains.

Yet as Darcy learned in the recovery of another Hoosier veteran of World War II, not every family is pining to be reconnected with their long-dead loved ones. Darcy helped point to the identity of Navy Seaman 1st Class Raymond Johnson of Allen County, who drowned in 1942 in a shipwreck near Newport, Rhode Island. When discovered eight months later, his headless body could not be positively identified, so he was buried in an unmarked grave. This summer he was exhumed and identified through DNA sampling.

But Johnson’s brother—the last surviving of nine siblings—had little interest in reclaiming his brother’s remains. “He said, ‘that’s great,’” Darcy recalls. “‘Now go ahead and cremate him and put him back in the bay.’” Darcy implored the brother to reconsider, and Johnson was eventually buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

In July, about a dozen members of the JPAC recovery team waited at a hangar for their helicopter shuttle into the Koolau mountains. A few miles away, tourists were getting sunburned and mai-tai drunk in Waikiki, but the Koolau Range was as misty and moody as it was the morning of Warnke’s fateful flight. “The biggest challenge with the site, by far, has been the visibility getting in,” says senior team leader Captain Alex Vanston, a U.S. Marine. “There’s a lot of wind and rain. We can’t dig if it gets too wet—it might erode.” So they waited, hoping for a break in the clouds, napping on backpacks, spitting sunflower seeds, smoking cigarettes.

Once up on the mountain—a five-minute helicopter ride, followed by a breathtaking landing on a slab of concrete the size of a picnic blanket—everyone threaded rope safety belts through their belt loops for a 30-minute, mud-slathered hike to the crash site. Their crew included an explosive ordnance disposal technician. Warnke’s plane likely went down with six machine guns and 1,200 rounds.

Each year, JPAC tackles a queue of about 200 locations, all candidates for excavation in search of a missing soldier. Although most cases take years of research, the military agency does identify servicemen at the rate of about two per week. By this summer, 15 years had passed since Ted Darcy spotted the remnants of Warnke’s Hellcat in the Koolaus. But finally, with the permits in place, a JPAC team was assigned a mission close to home. Still, the proximity to base was about the only thing the searchers had going for them: Perhaps most constraining, the team could work only a few hours before the clouds dropped in and they had to leave, or risk spending the night in the shrubbery.

Other obstacles abounded: Only 16 workers could work at the remote site, and the soil they were searching had to be sling-loaded out by helicopter, and sifted offsite. “The environmental work alone will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Pokines, the mission’s lead forensic anthropologist. “That’s always the question: Is it worth it?”

Pokines pauses, and says something you might not expect from a military anthropologist whose job involves connecting the dead with the living. “I’m all for leaving a wreath up there,” he says. “But his sister really wants him back.”

The material transported down from the mountaintop would be analyzed in JPAC’s Central Identification Lab, the largest forensic anthropology facility in the world. Inside the lab’s calm, air-conditioned walls, rows of tables are neatly stocked with bones. After JPAC conducts a recovery mission, the materials found are brought to the lab and assigned to one of 30 anthropologists, who work “blind”—that is, they are not told any details about the remains. They create a biological profile: age, race, gender and stature. Bone samples are taken for DNA testing; in Warnke’s case, his sister supplied a sample to researchers so they could look for similarities. The anthropologist also consults with one of the lab’s three forensic dentists, because teeth, with their wear patterns and fillings, are almost as unique as fingerprints. The team studies any personal effects—watches, glasses, dog tags, wedding rings—for clues.

The lab’s final report can be hundreds of pages long, sometimes far bulkier than the remains themselves. A whole life—proms and birthdays, dreams and diplomas—might, in the end, be reduced to a sliver of calcium and phosphorus. For some families, it is not enough. Recently, a tooth recovered in Laos was identified as a molar from the lower jaw of Sergeant Major George Brown and returned to his family in Texas. “I refuse to accept it as a body fully recovered,” Brown’s grown daughter, Ronda Brown-Pitts, told the local newspaper days before the tooth was buried with full military honors. “I can deal with closure, but I think this is a dishonorable way.”

Yet Major Brian DeSantis, public affairs officer for JPAC, points to a recent case—six or seven bones and some teeth—in which the wife and daughters of a pilot took solace in the recovery. “It wasn’t about the amount of remains,” DeSantis says. “It was that they finally had something. Something to grieve over. Something to put in the ground.”

Compared to the soil of Westville, in Hawaii things decay with alarming ease. Leave a tomato on the counter, and it will quickly develop a sunken mark. Berries seem to sprout gray fuzz before you can get them home from Safeway. The soil, high in iron, is an oxidized orange, because it, too, is rusting.

From the soil of the Koolaus, the JPAC team pulled an undeployed parachute and a survival kit inscribed with the name “Warnke.” Investigators also located nine teeth, three toenails, some vertebrae, and bone fragments from the arms, legs, right foot and cranium. DNA sampling showed the remains were indeed Warnke’s.

In the Iliad, after Hector is killed, Achilles drags his body behind a chariot and rides around the gates of Troy. The body is then burned, and when Hector’s father Priam recovers the remains 12 days later, his son’s body is ravaged beyond recognition. Yet the gods prevent Priam from seeing the wounds, and to his father, Hector’s body appears whole and unblemished.

When the remains of 20th-century soldiers are returned to their families—often as fragments—JPAC searchers hope the survivors will experience a similar kind of transformation, viewing the teeth and bones as something whole, with dignity.