September 19, 2013 --
Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany held its annual Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Recognition Breakfast Friday to honor former prisoners of war and to acknowledge those still missing from past conflicts.
During the breakfast at the Town and Country Restaurant Ballroom, two former POWs and two daughters of former POWs were recognized for their sacrifices in serving the nation.
“This is one day a year when we can get together and honor those who have served this great nation,” Lt. Col. Daniel Bates, executive officer, MCLB Albany, said during his opening remarks. “We should not only remember them on this day, but every day. Between World War I and now, 83,000 are still missing in action and 142,000 have been prisoners of war.”
Guest speaker Maj. Alexander J. Vanston, who served at Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command located at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, from 2006-2009, described how he led, conducted and coordinated MIA recovery efforts in Hawaii and various countries throughout the world.
During his tour, then-Capt. Vanston served as a recovery team leader, Detachment 4, as executive officer of Det. 4 and worldwide recovery team leader.
Vanston, commanding officer, Headquarters Company East, Marine Corps Logistics Command, recounted his first and most memorable recovery mission, which was only five miles from the JPAC headquarters building.
“In 1943, Navy Ensign Harry Warnke crashed his F6F-3 Hellcat on top of the Ko’olau Mountain Range during in a training mission,” he said. “We flew from Honolulu Airport Landing Zone just above H3 where we then hiked 45 minutes into the Ko’olaus to the site.”
Vanston said the uniqueness of the mission was the environmental impact of operating in Hawaii and working in the Ko’olaus, which is sacred land.
“We could not do any screening in the mountains due to the rainy conditions,” he said. “I had an eight-man team and during the 68 days on the mountain, we brought out 207 thousand pounds of soil, in two thousand-pound increments.”
The team shaped the excavated soil into mud blocks on top of tarps and sling load nets.
“The Army National Guard picked up the blocks in a CH-47 Chinook and flew them to Schofield Barracks where the soil was laid out on tarps to dry so we could screen the soil there,” Vanston said.
One of his most memorable moments of the dig was when he uncovered the cockpit.
“I shined a flashlight inside the cockpit, flipped open the panel and I could see all the switches,” he said. “I then realized I was right where he was. It (was) a powerful thing.”
Vanston also conducted MIA missions in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Germany, Austria, France, Czech Republic and Belgium.
Vanston’s final MIA recovery mission was in Germany, the site of a plane crash connected to the 1944 Battle of Hurtgen Forest.
He did not have a team but was instead coordinating and finalizing logistics for three teams located on the eastern and western edges of Germany.
After completing a six-hour drive back to Ramstein, Germany, he had expected to spend his final day prepping reports before flying home.
However, he received a phone call from a German explosive ordnance disposal unit in the village of Vossenack, Germany, with an unexpected discovery-the remains of two Americans.
“There, lying in the fighting position, wrapped in carpet with their weapons on their chests and their arms crossed neatly, were the remains of Private First Class Rogers and Private Marques,” he said. “Their identification tags were still around their necks and their wallets were where their pockets would have been. You don’t usually find remains that intact. It was incredible.”
During the breakfast, Vanston explained JPAC’s purpose, how missions are scheduled, how the recovery sites are processed and how remains are identified.
In honor of the sacrifice made by individuals whose remains were recovered during a mission, JPAC holds an arrival ceremony with a joint service honor guard and senior officers from each service, Vanston said.
The remains are put into a casket draped with an American flag and flown to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, he said.
The remains are then transported from a U.S. military plane to JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory, the largest and most diverse forensic skeletal laboratory in the world, according to Vanston.
On average, JPAC identifies about six MIAs each month, he said.
Gloria Johnson, daughter of Marine Master Sgt. Roy Edward Barrow who is still missing in action from the battle of Chosin Reservoir in North Korea, attended the ceremony in her father’s honor.
“I came to thank Major Vanston for his and the Joint Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command’s efforts in trying to recover my father and others missing in action,” she said, with tears in her eyes. “It’s very important to bring those missing in action home in order to bring closure to the families.”
The Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office states there are 83,343 service members still missing.
This includes 73,661 from World War II, 7,906 from the Korean War, 126 from the Cold War, 1,644 from the Vietnam War and six from Iraq and other conflicts, according to http://www.dtic. mil/dpmo/summary_statistics/.
“Remembering them and honoring them is key, because that is part of the promise this country has made to these individuals - that we will not rest until we bring people home,” he said.