Gathering in pursuit of loved ones lost

Defense Department holds session on how to track down remains of soldiers listed as 'missing in action'

March 29, 2009|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

Calvin and Kenneth Bayne, 81-year-old twins, can easily recall boxing lessons and camping trips with their big brother Robert. Also etched into their boyhood memories is the day in 1945 that a telegram arrived, telling them that Pfc. Robert Bayne, then 26, was missing in action near Mannheim, Germany. His remains were never recovered.

"We have his Purple Heart, the telegram and his letters," said Calvin Bayne. "But we still want to bring him home."

On Saturday, the 64th anniversary of the date they lost Robert, the Baynes joined 80 families gathered at a conference in Bethesda to learn what the military can do to return their loved ones. The event, organized by the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, included spouses, siblings and children of MIAs, like the Baynes of Dundalk.

"When someone goes missing, it changes the family's life immediately and forever," said Linda Watkins-Green of Germantown, the daughter of Air Force Capt. Richard E. Watkins Jr. In 1955, when she was 2, her father was shot down during a Cold War reconnaissance flight off the far eastern reaches of Russia. It would be nearly 50 years before Russia opened its archives to the U.S. and clues to what happened to his plane were found.

The conference gave her an opportunity "to do something for my father and to give my 83-year-old mother some closure," she said.

During the daylong event, families heard how the agency, known as the DPMO, has been involved since 1995 in a worldwide effort to locate and identify remains.

"We owe it to these families," said Charles A. Ray, a former ambassador to Cambodia and a Vietnam veteran, who leads the effort for the Department of Defense. "We have to do everything possible to find, return and identify the remains - or to explain to the family why we are unable to do that, so that they have some sense of what happened."

The agency, relying heavily on recent technology - particularly DNA science - as well as oral histories, military records, and personal effects, identified 80 Americans last year, three of them from World War I.

"Don't walk out without giving us DNA," James J. Canik, deputy director of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, asked the families. "You might hold the key that is sacred to our success."

The Bayne brothers, also veterans, submitted DNA samples last year and are poring over information provided by the agency. They scheduled a private briefing Saturday.

"We try not to build false hope, but even when we have exhausted all resources, we never close the case," said Larry Greer, DPMO spokesman.

Families play a critical role in the success of the effort, organizers said. The remains of a Navy pilot shot down in Vietnam were ultimately identified when his widow found an envelope with the curls from his first haircut.

In another case, a 1950s letter from a missing Korean War soldier's mother described a gap between his front teeth. It stayed in a file until, decades later, it provided the last clue to the identity of a soldier, whose shallow grave was located in North Korea.

The event also gave families the chance to share glimpses into the lives lost.

All Charleye Dyer knows of her father was gleaned from his letters to her mother, photographs and memorabilia. Lt. Charles G. Dyer, a Navy pilot, died in 1943 during a battle near the Solomon Islands, three months before his only child was born. She came to the conference "still looking for answers," she said.

"Nothing of him was ever recovered, but still there is this hope that there is something of him to bring home," said Dyer, of Dickeyville. "This is all about keeping the candle burning and doing something to honor my dad."

Nita Lumpkin came from Stanardsville, Va., with a map of Vietnam to show where her brother, Capt. Hugh Byrd, disappeared while flying reconnaissance in 1969.

"They have excavated the crash site twice without finding human remains," Lumpkin said. "I know these people have done all they can, and I come here feeling blessed to be with others. We are all experiencing All Saints Day today."

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