Military Unit Combs World for Remains of U.S. Soldiers

On the Hawaiian island of Oahu, inside a non-descript government building, works a rare group of men and women who follow in the footsteps of Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere.

They’re not planning a tea party in Pearl Harbor, nor are they toiling as silversmiths. They’re the dedicated forensic scientists, historians, anthropologists and active-duty military personnel of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, an elite military unit tasked with finding the more than 80,000 Americans listed as missing in action since World War II.

"America has always had an interest in recovering and identifying its war dead," Thomas Holland tells Oliver North for FOX News' "War Stories." Holland, an anthropologist with a doctorate from the University of Missouri, is the chief scientific director of JPAC.

America's interest in identifying its fallen soldiers arguably starts with Revere. In 1775, his co-conspirator in his famous "midnight ride" — Joseph Warren — made the ultimate sacrifice for American independence fighting the British at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Buried initially in a mass grave, Warren’s body later was identified by Revere, who earlier had fashioned a set of dentures inside his friend’s jaw, making Paul Revere this nation’s first forensic dentist.

During World War II, thousands of Americans who fell in battle were buried in U.S. cemeteries overseas. After the war, in 1947, the military established the Central Identification Laboratory — the predecessor to JPAC — to search battlefields for missing soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and repatriate their remains for burial here at home.

The laboratory continued its work through the Korean War and, after Vietnam, added a new urgency.

"There was concern when the Vietnam War ended that there was potentially live POWs," Holland said.

Renamed JPAC in 1991, the unit’s designation reflects the commitment to employ the skills and tools of all four branches of the U.S. military, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, to their mission.

For those serving in uniform, such as Lt. Lesley Alexander, a Navy aviator and JPAC recovery team leader, this mission is great assurance.

"My husband’s a Marine pilot," she said. "Just knowing that if something were to happen to him or to me that somebody would be out there looking for us until all means were exhausted, it’s a pretty powerful feeling."

The numbers can seem daunting. More than 80,000 Americans remain missing in action from World War II, 8,000 from the Korean War and almost 1,800 from Vietnam.

Moreover, their last known locations often are in harsh, inaccessible terrain on steep mountains, dense jungles or at the bottom of the ocean. And there are politics.

"Many of the places we go to simply cannot imagine that this country is doing this," Holland said. "They cannot imagine that we are expending the effort and the resources to find the remains of a private or a corporal. So there’s a certain level of suspicion."

Today, the JPAC mission is undertaking its own revolution. It is now the largest forensic skeletal laboratory in the world and the traditional methods of searching the battlefield for dog tags and personnel effects are augmented by new forensic technology, most importantly, DNA.

"We’re going back to cases that we put back on the shelf since the mid-'80s and we’re resolving those cases now because of DNA," Holland said.

Family members of those missing in action can submit DNA samples to JPAC, whose members compare this genetic profile with unidentified tissue remains.

Laverne Ransbottom of Edmond, Okla., knows well the work of JPAC. Her son, Lt. Fredrick Joel Ransbottom, disappeared in action in Vietnam in 1968. In 2006, a JPAC recovery team found her son’s remains atop a remote mountain near Vietnam’s border with Laos.

"I am eternally grateful and thankful to JPAC for this happening in my lifetime," she said.

The motivation for the unit’s mission is simple.

"It’s a debt that this generation owes to the generation before it and that the next generation will owe to the current one," Holland said.

Two-hundred-and-thirty-two years after our nation’s independence, JPAC’s mission would make Paul Revere proud.

"War Stories With Oliver North" airs at 8 p.m. on Sunday, July 6, on the FOX News Channel.