62 years after World War II, group seeks the fallen

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    62 years after World War II, group seeks the fallen

    62 years after World War II, group seeks the fallen
    MIA Hunters recently went to Papua New Guinea to seek the remains of fallen U.S. airmen.

    By Jeannine Aquino, Star Tribune

    Last update: July 19, 2007 – 12:10 AM

    Twenty-two men and women, many in their 60s, recently braved the dense jungles of Papua New Guinea in hopes of bringing some of America's lost soldiers back home.
    Three groups of volunteers on three two-week separate trips endured 90-degree heat, fast-flowing rivers, crocodiles and snakes to search for the crash sites of missing World War II airmen. Their efforts may help recover the remains of 60 MIAs lost to their families and friends for 62 long years.

    The trips were organized by Minnesota-based MIA Hunters, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding, recovering and returning lost World War II airmen home for burial. The organization's founder, retired Northwest Airlines executive Bryan Moon of Randolph, Minn., who has been on 19 previous MIA search missions and claims to have recovered the remains of 57 MIAs, called the searchers' work "miraculous."If you're thinking about 'Mission Impossible,' that's what they've just done," Moon said. "That's what we do."

    The three groups, which went to Papua New Guinea between May 19 and June 18, found 11 crash sites in the jungle, potentially yielding 38 American and 22 Japanese MIAs.

    Papua New Guinea has many largely untouched sites where World War II MIAs could be found, said Larry Greer, spokesman for the Pentagon's POW/MIA office in Arlington, Va. They are undisturbed because they are often in dense jungles and because the locals respect them as burial sites. The nation, on the island of New Guinea, was a key World War II battleground. Most U.S. remains there are from the Army Air Forces and the Navy, Greer said.

    About 78,000 MIAs from World War II are unaccounted for, he said. At least 70 percent of those were lost in the Pacific Theater, which includes Papua New Guinea.

    The mission members, whose ages ranged from 21 and 76, each paid $10,250 apiece to cover expenses. They explored crash sites previously scouted by hired Papuan trackers. They carried their own tents, food, water and supplies, and stayed in tents or native huts in villages that had never been visited by outsiders, organizers said.

    The MIA Hunters are among about four or five groups that do such searches, Greer said. Some "have something to offer, and others have nothing to offer," he said. Either way, "we urge them to do their research, and then, whatever they find ... please share that with us so our analysts can take it from there," he said. "We urge them not to disturb" the sites because this could harm the military's ability to retrieve remains or offend the host nation and its customs.

    MIA Hunters leave a crash site the way they found it, treating the area as hallowed ground, said Maj. Brian DeSantis, spokesman for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii. Once they find a site, mission members gather GPS coordinates, take pictures, and document any identifying markers to be sent to the command. Before they leave, they plant a small American flag on the site and say a short prayer for the fallen airmen.

    Joe Goggin, 72, of Red Wing, Minn., who has twice been to Papua New Guinea, said he goes because it's important to him to help families of missing MIAs find closure.

    Christopher Moon, Bryan's son, who has gone on several missions with his father, agreed.

    "If we think about these as nameless, faceless souls lost fighting for our country, it's easy to lose any emotional attachment," he said. "But if we recognize that these were children, really -- 17, 18, 19, 20 years old, with their entire lives ahead of them -- who went off and gave their lives for their country, are you really OK with the idea that we leave them where they are and not bring them back?"

    Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.

    Jeannine Aquino • 612-673-4146 • [email protected]

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