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By Sgt. Ashleigh Maxwell
Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Public Affairs
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) began the multi-year project to disinter the remains of 431 Unknowns that are associated with those lost on the Enoura Maru, a cargo ship used by the Imperial Japanese Navy in World War II to transport prisoners of war (POWs). Nearly 1000 service members are unaccounted for from this incident.
The first step of the Enoura Maru Project began with an effort to collect DNA samples, which was necessary for the agency to propose the disinterment.
“An important part of the project is that we [take] the DNA from the bones,” said Carrie LeGarde, a forensic anthropologist, and the project lead. “Then, that needs to be compared to a sample to figure out who it is, so the DNA we get from living biological relatives is really important.”
Once enough family reference samples were collected and Defense Department approval was received, the agency began to disinter the remains. Challenges grew as most of the remains were buried at sea, cremated during the Enoura Maru’s voyage, or commingled with other remains.
“The remains were mixed up so part of what we need to do is figure out which bones belong together and represent one individual,” said LeGarde. “This project is going to be a big challenge.”
Fortunately, the agency has worked on projects like this one in the past, such as the USS Oklahoma Project that was recently completed after six years.
“The USS Oklahoma was another large, commingled human remains project, so I am fortunate to be able to take the lessons we learned from that project and apply [them] towards the Enoura Maru Project,” said LeGarde. “It has helped inform our DNA sampling strategy, data management, and workflow on a large complex project.”
In the winter of 1944, the Japanese Imperial Navy used cargo ships, known as “Hellships”, to carry and transport over 20,000 allied POWs from various locations to Japan to be used as laborers. While aboard these Hellships, POWs suffered intense crowding, starvation, poor sanitation, and mistreatment from Japanese Soldiers. Being that Hellships were typically unmarked, U.S. forces would attack and sink many, unaware of the thousands of POWs onboard who were left to fend for themselves. In situations where they were ordered to abandon ship, POWs would plunge into the freezing water and swim towards land. When Japanese soldiers deemed that they were swimming too far off course, they fired upon and killed many. In one instance, survivors were herded onto tennis courts in Olongapo, Philippines and taken to the provincial jail where they were held for seven days. During this time, 15 wounded POWs were deemed unfit to continue traveling and subsequently executed. The remaining prisoners boarded the Enoura Maru to continue the voyage to Takao.
During the journey, sickness and starvation claimed the lives of many POWs, most of which were buried at sea. As the numbers dwindled down, the prisoners who did not succumb to the horrendous conditions of the Hellships were placed aboard the Enoura Maru. A week later, U.S. aircraft attacked the ship, sinking it and killing over 300 in the explosion. After the attack, the Japanese allowed the transfer of all the deceased to shore where there are reports of mass burials and cremations. Those who survived the attack boarded the Brazil Maru and continued the journey, many succumbing to their wounds just days later. When the Brazil Maru finally made its arrival to Moji, Japan, roughly 300 of the initial 1,619 remained.
“These guys held out for months against pretty tough odds and they did a lot of heroic acts in the process,” said Greg Kupsky, the historian lead for the project. “If we can bring some of them home, give them their names and identifications back, and send them home to their families that would be great.”
Due to the size and complexity of the Enoura Maru Project, the initial analyses and DNA testing will take several years to complete. While the project is not an easy one, the agency strives to provide the fullest possible accounting of missing and unaccounted-for U.S. service members for their families and for the nation.