Until They All Come Home: Locating and Identifying Missing Service Members

Guiding Question:

Why does it take so long to locate, recover, and identify missing World War II service members?


Using resources from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and the American Battle Monuments Commission, students will learn about the recovery and identification process of missing service members’ remains. The students will demonstrate their understanding of the recovery process by researching the location of a missing service member and developing a pre-mission report for that area.


Historical Context

The Pacific Theater of World War II was fought over thousands of square miles of oceans and on islands of all sizes scattered throughout the region. The sheer size and remoteness of the area of operations made recovering every killed service member impossible. At the conclusion of World War II, more than 78,900 names were inscribed into Walls, Courts, and Tablets of the Missing at ABMC cemeteries and memorials around the world. Since that time, more than 800 have been identified. Their names are marked with a small bronze rosette, and their next of kin are given the options to bury their loved ones in ABMC cemeteries, National Cemeteries, Arlington National Cemetery, or private cemeteries. According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, more than 73,000 service members are still missing or were buried at sea. Families with missing members faced an even greater burden as they waited for answers. Families, especially those who had loved ones fighting in the far-flung locations in Pacific, sacrificed during the war.


At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be able to

  • Describe the process for locating and identifying the remains of missing service members; and
  • Explain the differences between nuclear DNA and mitochondrial DNA in the identification process.

Standards Connections

Connections to Common Core
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Connections to C3 Framework
D2.His.1.9-12. Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.

Connections to Next Generation Science Standards
HS-LS3-1: Ask questions to clarify relationships about the role of DNA and chromosomes in coding the instructions for characteristic traits passed from parents to offspring.
HS-LS4-1: Communicate scientific information that common ancestry and biological evolution are supported by multiple lines of empirical evidence.


Lesson Preparation


Activity One: Introduction (30 minutes)

  • Project the Carry Team Photograph in the front of the room.
    • Ask students to interpret what is happening in the picture.
      • Where are they?
      • What is being carried?
      • What are they coming out of?
    • Ask the students, Are all service members killed in war brought back to the United States for burial?
      • If yes, has it always been that way?
      • If no, where are they buried then?
    • Teacher Tip: During World War II, families had several options at the end of the war: bring service members home for burial in private cemeteries or national cemeteries, have service members interred in military cemeteries overseas, or (if they were immigrants) return the remains to a home country for burial. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. government shifted policy, and have chosen to repatriate all remains back to the U.S. for burial.
  • Project the photograph Marines Killed at Tarawa.
    • Ask the students to interpret what is happening in this picture.
      • Where are they?
      • What is under the flags?
    • Ask the students, Do you think these Marines were brought back to the U.S.? Where would their remains be laid to rest?
    • Ask the students, Why do you think they were buried at sea?
      • Ships could be out at sea for weeks at a time in the Pacific. Burial at sea is a time-honored tradition in the U.S. Navy.
      • Teacher Tip: The high level of naval casualties and the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean led to a higher rate of personnel Missing in Action or buried at sea compared to the European Theater. Over 78,000 Americans were missing at the end of World War II. Over 54,000 of those were in the Pacific Theater of Operations.
    • Project the Far East and Pacific, 1941 map.
    • Ask the students, What do you think happened to the service members killed on the islands? Were they brought back to the U.S.? Were they buried at sea?
    • Tell the students that in the Pacific Theater of World War II there were over 54,000 service members either missing, lost at sea, or buried at sea.
    • Ask the students, Using the map for clues, why would there be so many missing service members in the Pacific Theater? Should the United States try to find all the missing service members?
    • Ask the students and create a list of their responses on the board, What challenges would search teams face when attempting to locate, recover, and identify the remains of military personnel from World War II?
      • Push students to think about decomposition, weather, logistics, political will, and foreign relations.
    • Tell the students about the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and their role in recovering missing servicemembers.
    • Show the DPAA Agency Video.

Activity Two: Locating and Identifying the Missing (30 minutes)

Assessment Materials

Pre-Recovery Mission Report (60 minutes)

  • Create groups of three to five students each.
  • Assign each group one of the seven case studies.
    • Teacher Tip: Teachers may select some or all of the seven available case studies.
  • Review with students the challenges that DPAA search teams face when attempting to locate and recover the remains of missing personnel.
  • Give each group a copy of the Pre-Mission Report Directions (specific to each case study).
    • Tell the students they will be creating a presentation to help the search team prepare for their mission to find the missing service member.
    • Tell the students they will conduct their own research to provide the required information from the directions.
    • Instruct the students to inform you when they have completed the first portion of the presentation.
  • Give the students the Personal Report Directions (specific to each case study) once they have completed the first portion of the presentation.
    • Remind students to include the Personal Report in the same presentation as the Pre-Mission Report.
  • The Presentation Assessment Rubric can be used to score the presentations.

Methods for Extension


  • Teachers can adapt the project to younger learners by removing Activity Two and spending more time on the presentation. It could also be adapted to English Language Learners in a similar way.
  • Teachers can group students to complete all components of the presentation activity together or each group can complete one component of the presentation and then work with two other groups to compile a complete presentation.


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