June 27, 2020

Stories of Sacrifice - POW/MIAs - PFC Juan F. Gutierrez Misidentified EP 19

Wrong remains buried by the wrong family.
ANOTHER MISIDENTIFICATION – THE CASE OF PFC JUAN F. GUTIERREZ.
Mistakes are a fact of life. What counts is the response to errors. Ever wonder why the U.S. Government does NOT want to identify the missing from World War II? Listen Now.

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Transcript

Wrong remains buried by the wrong family.
ANOTHER MISIDENTIFICATION – THE CASE OF PFC JUAN F. GUTIERREZ.

 

Mistakes are a fact of life. What counts is the response to errors.

Ever wonder why the U.S. Government does NOT want to identify the missing from World War II? Read on.

The U.S. Government expends great effort in telling the public how hard they work to recover the remains of American servicemembers from all wars. Yet, they expend even greater effort in avoiding actually recovering and identifying those remains. DPAA’s Public Affairs office seems to produce more than the identification laboratory. Like many things the government does, it makes no sense until one knows all the circumstances.

Last week, we told the story of Private Arthur H. “Bud” Kelder and his family’s struggle to bring his remains home for burial. Many readers found it unbelievable that the U.S. Government would obstruct the return of the remains of an American serviceman.

The short story is that Bud was one of fourteen Americans imprisoned in the Cabanatuan POW camp in the Philippine Islands who died on November 19, 1942. All fourteen were buried in communal grave number 717 in the camp cemetery.

After the war, American forces opened the cemetery and moved the remains to a temporary cemetery known as Manila #2. One man was quickly identified on the basis of a dog tag found with the remains. Three more were identified from dental records subsequently received from the States. The remaining ten were ultimately buried as Unknowns in the Manila American Cemetery. Their families were told only that their son’s remains were “non-recoverable” with no explanation of what that meant. The implication was that no remains existed as the Army had never even hinted that they may be part of a group burial.

To the families of these Unknowns, it was like they had fallen off the face of the earth and the Army wasn’t sharing what they knew.

In 2010, a member of Bud’s family sought records of his death from the Army, who happily obliged and provided the file. It was immediately obvious from the records that Bud was one of ten Unknowns buried in Manila, but which one?

The Army had been quite cooperative in providing the personnel file, but dug in their heels when the burial records that would identify an individual were requested. A nerve had obviously been hit and the government was finished cooperating.

It took a trip to Federal Court to obtain the records under the Freedom of information Act. The records were obviously releasable, but the government lawyers presented numerous extraneous objections in order to delay public release of these records known as X-files.

 

 
Kelder family Federal Court complaint requesting the burial records be provided under the Freedom of Information Act. 

Fortunately, Bud’s older Brother, Dr. Herman Kelder, a dentist, left behind an oral history tape that mentioned that Bud had extensive gold dental work. It took three years and a Federal lawsuit to obtain the burial records of the ten Unknowns from Grave 717, but only one of them, X-816, was shown to have any gold dental work.

This should have been a slam-dunk identification based on substantially better evidence than any of the World War II era identifications, but the families’ requests for the remains were either rebuffed or totally ignored by all the government agencies involved.

In a sadly morbid side note, while the gold dental work was detailed on the first dental chart made when the remains were recovered from the Cabanatuan cemetery, all the precious metals subsequently disappeared from the remains. So much for protection of the remains by the Army. At least the dental record remained for identification of the remains.

It was later shown that not only had no other Unknowns from Manila been identified in modern times, but, perhaps more tellingly, documents surfaced showing that the government agencies not only knew the identities of the remains, but they were also aware of the government’s incompetence and misconduct.

The government knew they had a problem. Actually, they had many problems and they were of their own making. They definitely didn’t want to open this Pandora’s Box. It took another trip to Federal Court before the Unknowns from Grave 717 were disinterred for identification.

Right from the beginning, almost as if by design, they had made a mess of the recovery of remains from the Cabanatuan POW camp.

The prisoners had secretly kept extensive records of deaths and burials. However, unlike other POW camp burial records such as at Camp O’Donnell, the Cabanatuan burial records did not record each man’s position in the communal grave. Not to be bothered by little details, the graves registration personnel assumed that, like some other camps, the burials were in roster sequence so they officially identified the remains on the basis of their sequence on the burial roster.

After several hundred remains had been transferred from Cabanatuan to Manila Cemetery #2 – and buried under the (incorrect) name determined from the burial roster sequence – the mistake was realized and all the disinterment reports were corrected. All the records were corrected except the cemetery burial records.

So as dental records were obtained and compared with the skeletal remains, more identifications were made. Unfortunately, as the remains were identified, the cemetery was told to ship the remains previously (mis)identified on the basis of the burial roster sequence. So while some mother’s son had been identified, some other mother’s son’s remains were shipped to her for burial in the States.

But this wasn’t the worst of it. For some as yet unexplained reason, the Graves Registration Command in the Philippines refused to employ any trained personnel to properly reassociate the remains, preferring, instead, to use contract civilian embalmers. While there is no indication that the remains were commingled in the communal graves, the untrained embalmers diligently sorted the remains based on color and size and hopelessly commingled the remains.

In the case of Bud Kelder, for example, the few token bones returned to his family have come from five different caskets. It is not improbable that a bit of each of the fourteen men was present in each of the fourteen caskets.

While each of these problems might be attributed to honest mistakes, it is the response to the error that counts. If the mistakes were sad, the government response was totally shameful. Not only were multiple government agencies aware of the mistakes and that many, perhaps most, families had received the remains of some other family’s son, but they worked to continue the coverup and to this day diligently fight any request to return remains.

In a final display of incompetence in the grave 717 case, DPAA was unable to locate a family member to consent to the exhumation of PFC Gutierrez and finally asked a Federal Judge to allow them to proceed. A private individual using only publicly available data was able to locate a close family member is less than one hour of research.

 

 
 
Excerpt from Grave 717 misidentification memo which attempts to obfuscate the facts and obscure the agency’s incompetence. 

Now, more than three years after the last occupant of Grave 717 was exhumed for identification, a few token remains from each man has been identified and returned to their respective families for burial. The Kelder family, after four trips to Federal court, is believed to have received the largest amount of remains – about ten large bones. The balance of the remains, which were virtually complete when exhumed from Cabanatuan, will likely be cremated and “disposed” of regardless of each family’s religious beliefs.

So how does a crack government agency screw up so often and with such consequences without learning anything? It looks like DPAA has a long heritage of incompetence.

Cabanatuan Grave 717 was the first of a handful of similar cases disinterred for identification, but it was not in the least atypical – either in the facts or the government’s efforts to conceal their incompetence. Rather than leverage what they learned from Grave 717, DPAA continues to find new ways to avoid identifying the more than one-thousand Unknowns from the Cabanatuan POW camp.