The 92nd Infantry Division, “Buffalo Soldiers,” began to deploy to Italy in July 1944. They had spent more than a year training together at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and were deemed ready to enter World War II. What made them unique was that they were only African American infantry unit operating in Europe at that time.
The segregated division, made up of primarily white officers and African American enlisted, was sent to the Gothic Line in the northern Apennine Mountains in Italy, Germany’s last major line of defense against the Allied forces pushing north. They remained there throughout the winter with their one major operation – Operation FOURTH TERM – taking place in February 1945. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) historians estimate the 92nd lost approximately 700 men during their time on the Line.
After the war, 53 men from the 92nd were still unaccounted for. In an effort to account for them, DPAA started the 92nd Infantry Project in 2014, but up to this point, have only been able to account for three of those men.
The greatest challenge in accounting for these men isn’t lack of information or the ability to correlate remains buried as unknowns with the unaccounted-for, but not having the necessary DNA family reference samples (FRS) for comparison in order to make an identification.
“This is primarily a disinterment project,” said Dr. Sarah Barksdale, a DPAA European-Mediterranean Directorate historian. “There are 51 unknowns buried in Florence American Cemetery that are most likely associated with casualties of the 92nd Infantry Division. We’re trying to piece together the details of battle to make associations between those members of the division that are missing and the unknowns.”
Barksdale is working with Dr. Traci Van Deest, the DPAA Laboratory 92nd Infantry Division Project Lead and forensic anthropologist, to review the records of the unknowns to create short lists of likely matches with the 92nd unaccounted-for to be able to propose disinterment and to compare to remains already in the laboratory.
“We know how many unaccounted-for or unresolved cases there are from the 92nd,” said Army Col. Jon Lust, the DPAA European-Mediterranean Director. “We suspect all but two of them are unknowns in a cemetery. The problem we have is, by the rules we have to follow, if we don’t have enough FRS, we’re going to run the risk of knowing they’re there, but we’re not going to be able to either A) get the approval for the disinterment because we don’t meet the threshold of FRS needed, or B) we will get the approval and the remains will end up in the lab and we won’t be able to make the identification.”
DNA analysis is one of the primary tools used by DPAA scientists to account for missing Americans. However, DPAA doesn’t perform the analysis of collected DNA samples. That’s handled by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System’s (AFMES) Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory located at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.
“DNA testing performed by AFMES is one of the primary tools used in the identification of our fallen heroes from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, and, although AFMES is highly successful in generating mitochondrial and nuclear DNA results, those results mean nothing without an appropriate Family Member DNA Reference to compare it to,” said Dr. Tim McMahon, AFMES Director of DNA Operations.
The Army Casualty Office is the organization charged with connecting with the families of the 92nd and asking them to submit DNA, but tracking down families of World War II-era service members can be difficult.
“There was a lot of relocation in the African American community after the war,” said Lust.
Lust also said records are limited when it comes to family and individual movement.
Even when families are found, there can sometimes be a distrust of what the government is going to do with the DNA given because of past issues. However, there are now laws in place to prevent any kind of misconduct, and AFMES can only use DNA for the purpose intended by the donor.
“Family references collected and submitted to AFMES are protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Privacy Act, and the donor informed consent form,” said McMahon. “The DNA profile that is added to the secure AFMES database can only be utilized to assist in the identification of our fallen heroes and is only accessible by AFMES forensic scientists.”
Family DNA was a vital part of accounting for Army Pfc. William H. Jones, an African American Soldier who was reported missing in action during the Korean War and whose remains were part of the 55 boxes turned over to the U.S. by North Korea in 2018. Jones’ brother and sister gave reference samples.
“My mother, Mrs. Elizabeth J. Ohree, always believed that it was very vital that we had a DNA sample to help identify the remains of her brother so he could be returned to the family,” said Gregory Ohree, Jones’ nephew.
Ohree said his mother started the process when she saw in the news how missing service members were being identified with DNA.
“It's important that families keep in contact with the military to get this information,” he said. “I would strongly encourage family members, specifically African American families, to make the effort to give a DNA sample.”
Ohree hopes other families can find the same kind of closure his family found.
“My mother never gave up hope because she knew that, after almost 70 years, one day her brother would be coming home.”
Ultimately, DPAA’s goal with the 92nd Infantry Project is the same as it is with all unaccounted-for Americans, to provide the fullest possible accounting of our missing personnel to their families and the nation.
“This is an outfit that faced the enemy in Italy, but also faced segregation from the War Department and their own countrymen,” said Barksdale. “Bringing them home and honoring their service doesn’t correct those injustices. However, the opportunity to return them to their families and tell their stories in an honest and open way I think is a really important part of our mission.”
If you are family of someone unaccounted for from the 92nd Infantry Division, please contact the Army Casualty Office at (800) 892-2490 to arrange giving a DNA sample. If you know of such a family, please pass on the Army Casualty phone number and encourage them to help DPAA account for their loved one.
“The 92nd Infantry, along with all the other missing, are not forgotten,” said Van Deest. “We’re still working on the cases already received at the laboratory. We’re still looking for FRS. We’re still looking for ways to bring these remains into the laboratory in order to do the scientific work to identify them and bring them home.”