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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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,
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
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.