Staff Sgt. William E. “Blootie” Turner was killed in action on Dec. 13, 1943.
“I remember that day when they announced in our high school that Blootie Turner had died, the whole place got real quiet. Blootie was a great football player and a better person. He was the most popular kid in school,” said Patrick Harrison, retired brigadier general, and former high school classmate of Turner.
Turner, a flight engineer aboard “Hell’s Fury,” a B-26 “Marauder,” was among scores of Army Airmen involved in a World War II bombing mission near Amsterdam.
As wave after wave of Allied aircraft advanced towards their objectives, German anti-aircraft guns locked in. On the third and final wave, enemy air defense artillery sheared the wing off of “Hell’s Fury” and sent it plunging to earth in flames.
The sole survivor was the pilot, who parachuted to safety only to be captured by the Germans and taken as a prisoner of war. Turner was among those who perished that day.
Nearly three quarters of a century would pass before he would receive the honors reserved for the nation’s fallen heroes.
Turner was among more than 36,000 Army Soldiers and Airmen unaccounted for from the Second World War alone. Generations later, the Department of Defense leverages multiple teams and numerous technological advances to find and identify the remains of lost Soldiers.
Within the DOD lies the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. DPAA is tasked with recovering missing personnel, listed either as prisoners of war or missing in action, from past wars and conflicts across the globe.
Repatriating Soldiers and Army Airmen like Turner is the responsibility of the U.S. Army Human Resources Command and its Past Conflicts Repatriation Branch.
Using a combination of historical records and archaeology, the DPAA has teams searching worldwide for remains. Those teams comb specific areas based on historical data in the hope of unearthing America’s missing.
Good record-keeping provides important clues throughout the identification process.
“Every aircraft that went down from World War II had a missing crewmember report done on it,” said Greg Gardner, Past Conflicts Repatriation Branch chief. “If a missing machine gun or engine piece is found, then there will be a serial number somewhere. That serial number will be listed on that missing crewmember report.”
When relics are confirmed to be U.S. equipment, archaeologists — with permission from cooperating governments — work to unearth any possible remains.
“We generally have very good access into many areas,” said Gardner. “Areas where there are ongoing conflicts or a lot of insurgency such as Myanmar or obviously North Korea, can be challenging.
“One of the more surprising levels of cooperation to most people that we have is actually with Russia,” he said. “During World War II, our Army Air Corps would take off from England, fly a bombing mission over central Europe and fly on to Russia. The Russians kept very good records and have been willing to share that information with us.”
When DPAA determines the likelihood of recovering remains from a specific area, recovery teams are sent in to unearth those possible remains. If human remains are recovered, they are hand carried in sealed containers to one of two labs, Hawaii or Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, where medical examiners begin the identification process.
Pieces of a puzzle
Together, history and science play a significant role in identifying the remains of fallen service members. Historical records showing where units were operating, combined with material evidence, can narrow the scope from hundreds to tens of Soldiers or Airmen.
“For example, if the lab receives remains recovered from the area near Pusan in South Korea, we know there’s a good chance that Soldier may have fought with the 24th Infantry Division,” said Michael Mee, the PCRB identifications chief. “We can then look at the DPAA list of unaccounted for service members and see just who is missing that may have fought with that unit, at that time, in that area.”
Material evidence, such as weapons, aircraft debris, or even jewelry, narrows the search even further.
“A serial number can tell us a lot of things about who fought in a particular area, but it goes deeper than that,” said Mee.
“Sometimes a simple inscription on the back of a wrist watch can lead us to the identification of a whole flight crew who may have perished in any given area.”
As is in the case with aircraft wreckage, if an inscription leads the lab to one positive ID, then researchers can cross-reference flight records to identify fellow passengers.
Using DNA …
Working with fragments of remains, medical examiners in one of two labs will attempt to draw DNA types just as they would in a routine medical examination today.
In the past, bone fragments the size of a thumb were needed to extract mitochondrial DNA. As the science developed, the size of the needed fragment has decreased. Now enough DNA needed to make an identification can be found in a fragment roughly the size of a person’s pinky nail.
Contractors working for the PCRB research and produce genealogy reports to locate relatives willing to submit a DNA sample. Having two or more family members submit different types of DNA makes the chances of a positive identification that much greater.
There are three types of DNA that are used in the identification process; nuclear, y, and mitochondrial. Nuclear, being the most reliable of DNA types, is also the hardest to get.
“The problem with nuclear is there are only a handful of people in a person’s bloodline who can donate,” Gardner said. “When you look at the Soldiers who fought and died during World War II, most of those were 18 to 21 years old and didn’t have children, which rules out nuclear.”
Mitochondrial DNA when compared to nuclear is more prevalent, but not as reliable.
“Once mitochondrial DNA is drawn in the lab, they replicate it millions of times and then run a comparison against a possible family member,” he said.
“Looking at the physical characteristics of the Soldiers who fought during World War II, for every 10 people who fought during World War II, three out of those 10 will have very similar mitochondrial DNA which means getting a match does not always produce an identification.”
… and beyond
Because the Department of Defense only began collecting DNA samples in 1991, nothing exists to compare remains from earlier time frames. And many of the relatives who could provide comparative samples are already deceased.
Dental records and DNA comparisons can give a close match to a person’s identity, but as recent as two years ago, clavicle bones have been used to refine the search. “What we’ve learned in recent years is that a person’s clavicle can act just as a fingerprint,” said Gardner. “They are unique.”
“In the Korean War timeframe, chest x-rays were usually taken because tuberculosis was so common,” he said. “DPAA recovered many of these records, and if the service members’ remains include a clavicle, there is a good possibility we can also make an identification off of those.”
When a clavicle bone is recovered, scientists use computer simulation to compare reference points between the bone and any x-rays that may have been taken. Twelve or more matching reference points increases the chance of a positive identification.
No soldier left behind
In 2015, then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called finding, recovering, and identifying the remains of these individuals “one of our highest responsibilities.”
Each of the four military services has its own agency that works at the direction of the DPAA to liaise with the families of those missing or unaccounted for service members. For the Army, that agency is the PCRB.
“We are the Army’s part of the Department of the Defense’s overall mission to recover, identify, and then return unaccounted for service members to their families for burial,” said Gardner. “Our primary role is to serve the families.”
In the 1980s, President Reagan made recovering remains from unaccounted for service members from Vietnam a priority. Under President George W. Bush, Congress made unaccounted for service members from Korea a priority and finally, in 2010, service members from World War II were added.
The Department of Defense maintains a list, online, of all missing or unaccounted for service members. According to Gardner, that roster is constantly evolving.
“When the DPAA unearths the potential remains of persons they think may be one of the names on this list, that’s when each of the services goes to work; identifying next of kin, collecting DNA, and so forth right down to the point when the service member’s identity is confirmed and those remains are brought home to the United States, given a proper burial, and all benefits are distributed,” said Gardner.
“After all that is complete, then and only then, do we close that case,” he added.
Family member updates
Within the Army’s PCRB lie two sections — one for case management and one for identification.
“We serve as liaisons between the DPAA and the family members,” said Ollie Green-Williams, casualty and mortuary affairs specialist-supervisor and Army veteran with 21 years of service. “We are basically the front end of the process.”
The case management division is responsible for keeping family members updated to the status of their missing service members.
“There are times when we have family members approach us and inquire about a missing service member. Other times the DPAA will contact us asking us to locate certain family members that may be related to a certain service member,” she said.
According to Green-Williams, that’s when contracted genealogy teams jump in to help locate relatives. “We then make the necessary phone calls, identifying who we are and what we’re doing,” she said.
The PCRB also assists the DPAA with government sponsored briefings called Family Member Updates. Teams of archaeologists, scientists, and lab workers are brought in and given status updates into the recovery efforts of the unaccounted for service members.
“In addition to the status updates, teams will come in and collect DNA, if needed, from family members,” said Green-Williams. “Once the DPAA notifies us that a positive match is made, we pass that individual case off to ID side of the house.”
Once a positive identification is made, the PCRB sends out a team member along with a Casualty Assistance Officer to brief family members and assist with the interment process.
“There is a lot of fulfillment that comes with this part of the job,” said Jeannette Gray, mortuary affairs officer and 9-year Army veteran. “It is our job to go out and share the details of how a family’s loved one was found. We also have the opportunity to provide intricate details of the fate of that particular service member.
“There are a lot of emotions that go into it, but in most cases there is a sense of relief and closure that we bring when we go to do our briefs,” she said.
The identification section works hand in hand with the Casualty Assistance Office to ensure that once a positive identification is made, the appropriate family members are notified and the burial process is initiated.
“His picture came on the television the other night and I jumped up out of my chair and said ‘Man, lookey there. There’s Blootie,’” said Harrison.
In August 2007 the remains of an unidentified person were found by an excavation crew looking to build new housing near Aalsmeer in the Netherlands. The spot ended up being the exact crash site of the “Hell’s Fury.”
After going through the approval process to excavate those remains, which can sometimes take years, those located remains were taken to the lab in Nebraska.
Later, in 2012, Linda Tinsley was notified that the DPAA was looking for relatives Staff Sgt. William E. “Blootie” Turner to submit DNA.
Tinsley, a cousin of Turner born in 1947, had never known him, yet she felt she did.
“I grew up as a young girl knowing that we had lost him and that he was dearly loved by the family,” said Tinsley. “Our families would always camp together and prior to the war, William would always be there.”
Finally, in 2017, after confirming DNA matches between Turner, Tinsley and Tinsley’s sister, Rita Susan Williams, it was confirmed: William E. “Blootie” Turner would be coming home.
Turner was laid to rest at the Nashville National Cemetery with full military honors, Aug. 22, 2017, nearly 74 years after he died aboard the “Hell’s Fury” over the Netherlands during World War II.
His family always knew that day would come because in the Army, no Soldier is left behind.
“I remember my aunt telling us that even though William was gone, somehow she knew he would be coming home,” Tinsley said. “She always believed that until the day she died. And you know what, she was right.”