A forensic technique developed by a Queensland researcher is being used to identify the remains of American soldiers from the Korean War, speeding up the rate of identification and returning the fallen to their families.
University of Queensland forensic anthropologist Carl Stephan, who also is creating Australia’s first skeleton library, developed the chest radiograph comparison analysis technique during a five-year fellowship at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Hawaii from 2008-2013.
He now serves as a consultant to the agency.
In the US, the government makes that unofficial promise to everybody that you will be returned home.Dr Carl Stephan, forensic anthropologist
The technique uses chest radiographs to identify remains that cannot be identified using DNA, because of the embalming process the bones were put through during original examinations in the mid-1950s.
Dental x-rays were not uniformly taken until the start of the Vietnam War, but most Korean War soldiers had chest radiographs to screen for tuberculosis.
“Before these guys joined the military they were taken to recruiting stations, and there were reports of doctors having to take lunch breaks just to let the x-ray machine cool down over lunch,” Dr Stephan said.
“They were photographing 500-700 people a day. And so the Department of Defense had all those records.
“My task [during the fellowship] was to develop some sort of method to use those radiographs to identify those individuals.”
Restoring damaged radiographs the first step
It was a big challenge because of the number of radiographs on file, and because they were not the same quality as x-rays today.
Most of the films were small — about 10cm by 12.5cm. And about a third of them needed to be restored.
“Even though the quality is a little less, you can still see all the shapes of the cortical bone, which is the thick bone on the outside,” Dr Stephan said.
“Because people use their arms in different ways, and they’ve got different genetics, the bones have a different shape between individuals.
“So we look for that shape, and if it’s the same, we can say with a good deal of confidence it’s a match to that person; and if they’re different, then we keep on looking.”
Historical search narrows field
Identification starts with historical research.
More than 850 unknown soldiers were buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, after the United Nations and communist forces exchanged the remains of war dead in what became known as Operation Glory.
“They start with an idea about the losses and where these skeletons were found, and they try to match them up as much as they can with this historical search,” Dr Stephan said.
“Then when they get to having some degree of confidence … [there’s an] exhumation, the bones will go to the lab and we’ll start looking at it.
“We’ll have a shortlist … it varies from case to case. In some cases it might be four to five guys, other times it might be 250.
“And after you go through that first cut when you’re looking at the bones, if you don’t find it’s any of those individuals, then that’s where we go out to use the computer automated search algorithm.
“We’ll see if we get any hits on these that might be the potential matches and go and look at them.”
Technique has applications outside war dead
Dr Stephan said there were always multiple lines of evidence used to identify an individual, including the historical data, a biological profile such as age, ancestry and stature, plus dental records.
The chest radiograph technique has also been used to identify remains from World War II, and in criminal cases.
There is a chance it could be used to identify Australian remains, if it turns out there are some Australian individuals buried in the National Memorial Cemetery.
“They do have some of the Australians’ chest radiographs on file, so comparisons could be made against them,” Dr Stephan said.
He said Australian authorities tended to go out to retrieve remains if someone came across them, but in terms of going out to specifically search, it did not happen to the same extent as it did in the US.
“In the US, the government makes that unofficial promise to everybody that you will be returned home,” he said.
“It’s an admirable ideal. They have 300 employees around the clock, full time, each year, working on this. It’s a massive operation.”
Soldier returned home after more than 60 years
One of the soldiers identified using Dr Stephan’s technique was buried in his hometown last month.
Army Private First Class Aubrey D. Vaughn, of South Carolina, was part of a team overrun by Chinese communist forces in North Korea in 1951.
After the battle, the 20-year-old was reported missing in action. It was later reported he died while in captivity at a prisoner of war camp.
Vaughn’s remains were exhumed from the National Memorial Cemetery on May 18, 2015 and were identified using chest radiograph comparison analysis, anthropological analysis, circumstantial evidence and dental records.
His remains were returned to his family for burial with full military honours on April 12.
More than 7,800 American military personnel remain unaccounted for following the Korean War.