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Johan Rhodes
Johan Rhodes

M.I.A.: Missing In Action

Missing in action (MIA) is a casualty classification assigned to combatants, military chaplains, combat medics, and prisoners of war who are reported missing during wartime or ceasefire. They may have been killed, wounded, captured, executed, or deserted. If deceased, neither their remains nor grave have been positively identified. Becoming MIA has been an occupational risk for as long as there has been warfare.

M.I.A.: Missing In Action

Until around 1912, service personnel in most countries were not routinely issued with ID tags. As a result, if someone was killed in action and their body was not recovered until much later, there was often little or no chance of identifying the remains unless the person in question was carrying items that would identify them, or had marked their clothing or possessions with identifying information. Starting around the time of the First World War, nations began to issue their service personnel with purpose-made identification tags. These were usually made of some form of lightweight metal such as aluminium. However, in the case of the British Army the material chosen was compressed fiber, which was not very durable. Although wearing identification tags proved to be highly beneficial, the problem remained that bodies could be completely destroyed (ranging from total body disruption to outright vaporization), burned or buried by the type of high-explosive munitions routinely used in modern warfare or in destructions of vehicles. Additionally, the combat environment itself could increase the likelihood of missing combatants such as jungle warfare,[1][2] or submarine warfare,[3][4][5] or aircraft crashes in remote mountainous terrain,[6] or at sea. Alternatively, there could be administrative errors; the actual location of a temporary battlefield grave could be misidentified or forgotten due to the "fog of war".[7] Finally, since military forces had no strong incentive to keep detailed records of enemy dead, bodies were frequently buried (sometimes with their identification tags) in temporary graves, the locations of which were often lost[8][9] or obliterated e.g. the forgotten mass grave at Fromelles. As a result, the remains of missing combatants might not be found for many years, if ever. When missing combatants are recovered and cannot be identified after a thorough forensic examination (including such methods as DNA testing and comparison of dental records) the remains are interred with a tombstone which indicates their unknown status.

The development of genetic fingerprinting in the late 20th century means that if cell samples from a cheek swab are collected from service personnel prior to deployment to a combat zone, identity can be established using even a small fragment of human remains. Although it is possible to take genetic samples from a close relative of the missing person, it is preferable to collect such samples directly from the subjects themselves. It is a fact of warfare that some combatants are likely to go missing in action and never be found. However, by wearing identification tags and using modern technology the numbers involved can be considerably reduced. In addition to the obvious military advantages, conclusively identifying the remains of missing service personnel is highly beneficial to the surviving relatives. Having positive identification makes it somewhat easier to come to terms with their loss and move on with their lives. Otherwise, some relatives may suspect that the missing person is still alive somewhere and may return someday.[10][11][12][13][14][15] However, many of these identifying procedures are not typically used for combatants who are members of militias, mercenary armies, insurrections, and other irregular forces.

The phenomenon of MIAs became particularly notable during World War I, where the mechanized nature of modern warfare meant that a single battle could cause astounding numbers of casualties. For example, in 1916 over 300,000 Allied and German combatants were killed in the Battle of the Somme. A total of 19,240 British and Commonwealth combatants were killed in action or died of wounds on the first day of that battle alone. It is therefore not surprising that the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in France bears the names of 72,090 British and Commonwealth combatants, all of whom went missing in action during the Battle of the Somme, were never found and who have no known grave. Similarly, the Menin Gate memorial in Belgium commemorates 54,896 missing Allied combatants who are known to have been killed in the Ypres Salient. The Douaumont ossuary, meanwhile, contains 130,000 unidentifiable sets of French and German remains from the Battle of Verdun.

Even in the 21st century, the remains of missing combatants are recovered from the former battlefields of the Western Front every year.[19] These discoveries happen regularly, often during the course of agricultural work or construction projects.[20][21][22][23][24][25][26] Typically, the remains of one or several men are found at a time. However, occasionally the numbers recovered are much larger e.g. the mass grave at Fromelles (excavated in 2009) which contained the skeletal remains of no less than 250 Allied soldiers.[27][28][29][30] Another example is the excavation which took place at Carspach (Alsace region of France) in early 2012, which uncovered the remains of 21 German soldiers, lost in an underground shelter since 1918, after being buried by a large-calibre British artillery shell.[31] Regardless, efforts are made to identify any remains found via a thorough forensic examination. If this is achieved, attempts are made to trace any living relatives. However, it is frequently impossible to identify the remains, other than to establish some basic details of the unit they served with. In the case of British and Commonwealth MIAs, the headstone is inscribed with the maximum amount of information that is known about the person.[32] Typically, such information is deduced from metallic objects such as brass buttons and shoulder flashes bearing regimental/unit insignia found on the body. As a result, headstones are inscribed with such information as "A Soldier of The Cameronians" or "An Australian Corporal" etc. Where nothing is known other than the soldier's national allegiance, the headstone is inscribed "A Soldier of The Great War". The term "Sailor" or "Airman" can be substituted, as appropriate.

There are many missing combatants and other persons in service from World War II.[33][34][35][36][37][38]In the United States Armed Forces, 78,750 personnel missing in action had been reported by the end of the war, representing over 19 percent of the total of 405,399 killed during the conflict.[39]

As with MIAs from the First World War, it is a routine occurrence for the remains of missing personnel killed during the Second World War to be periodically discovered.[40] Usually they are found purely by chance (e.g. during construction or demolition work) though on some occasions they are recovered following deliberate, targeted searches.[41][42][43][44] As with the First World War, in western Europe MIAs are generally found as individuals, or in twos or threes. However, sometimes the numbers in a group are considerably larger e.g. the mass grave at Villeneuve-Loubet, which contained the remains of 14 German soldiers killed in August 1944.[40] Others are located at remote aircraft crash sites in various countries.[45][46][47]But in eastern Europe and Russia, World War II casualties include approximately two million missing Germans, and many mass graves remain to be found. Almost a half million German MIAs have been buried in new graves since the end of the Cold War. Most of them will stay unknown. The German War Graves Commission is spearheading the effort.[48] Similarly, there are approximately 4 million missing Russian service personnel scattered across the former Eastern Front, from Leningrad down to Stalingrad, though around 300 volunteer groups make periodic searches of old battlefields to recover human remains for identification and reburial.[49]

In 2008, investigators began to conduct searches on Tarawa atoll in the Pacific Ocean, trying to locate the remains of 139 American Marines, missing since the Battle of Tarawa in 1943.[51] Between 2013 and 2016 the remains of 37 US Marines were recovered from Tarawa. Among those recovered was Medal of Honor recipient Alexander Bonnyman.

In August 1953, General James Van Fleet, who had led US and UN forces in Korea, estimated that "a large percentage" of those service members listed as missing in action were alive.[63] (Coincidentally, General Van Fleet's own son Captain James Alward Van Fleet Jr was MIA from a United States Air Force mission over North Korea April 4, 1952.)

The U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (now the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency) and the equivalent South Korean command are actively involved in trying to locate and identify remains of both countries' personnel.[69] Remains of missing combatants from the Korean War are periodically recovered and identified in both North and South Korea.[70][71] It is thought that 13,000 South Korean and 2,000 U.S. combatants are buried in the Korean Demilitarized Zone alone and never found.[72] In the summer of 2018 President Moon Jae-in of South Korea expressed his hopes to recover the remains of Korean soldiers from the DMZ.[73] South Korea MIAs are believed to number 120,000.[74] In 2018 the remains of 1 North Korean were repatriated to North Korea from the U.S. On Sept 27, 2018, the remains of 64 South Korean soldier MIAs were repatriated to South Korea from the United States.[75]On June 25, 2020, the remains of 147 South Korean soldier MIAs were repatriated to South Korea from the United States.[76]In July 2020 it is reported that 50,000 South Korean POWS were never repatriated from North Korea in 1953.[77]

In 2011 the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) adopted Resolution # 423 calling for renewed discussions with North Korea to recover Americans missing in action.[83] On July 27, 2011, Congressman Charles Rangel introduced a Congressional Resolution calling on North Korea to repatriate POW/MIAS and abductees from North Korea.[84] 041b061a72


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