KETR

Family's Long Fight With Pentagon Returns Name To Unknown Soldier

Jan 27, 2015
Originally published on January 27, 2015 3:27 pm

The remains of a World War II soldier who died in a prisoner of war camp in the Philippines — and the subject of a joint NPR/ProPublica investigation last year — have been identified as Pvt. Arthur "Bud" Kelder. His identification came after a long legal battle between his family and the Pentagon.

Kelder, who enlisted in the Army in 1941, served as a dental assistant in Manila, and then ended up on the Bataan Peninsula. The Japanese invaded, took prisoners and marched thousands of Americans to POW camps. In late 1942, Kelder died in one of those camps of malaria, a vitamin deficiency and diphtheria. All his family received was a letter.

"And I realized how much hurt the entire family had suffered because Bud's remains were never recovered," says John Eakin, Kelder's cousin, who waged a long legal battle to get Kelder's remains returned. "None of them really knew what happened to him."

Eakin learned that Kelder's remains were mixed with the remains of 13 other soldiers who died on the same day. And he learned the remains were moved several times. Finally, the remains were labeled as unknown soldiers and buried in an American cemetery in Manila.

Even though the family had evidence suggesting Kelder's remains were there, the Pentagon wouldn't dig up the graves.

Eakin filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 2009.

After years of motions and filings, the Pentagon finally exhumed that group grave and matched Kelder's remains with his family's DNA. Pentagon officials had no other comment.

But the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) — the U.S. agency tasked with finding, identifying and returning such remains — says it rarely digs up the graves of unknown soldiers.

The NPR/ProPublica investigation last year found that's because the agency is slow and risk averse, and has used outdated science.

JPAC officials maintain that the reason the process is so slow is because they take great care not just to make a positive identification — which is easy now with DNA testing — but to identify and return as full a set of remains as possible, so families can have closure.

Still, Eakin says it took a lawsuit and years of back and forth with JPAC to finally get Kelder identified.

But the case is not over yet. Kelder's remains were scattered with the remains of many others. Their families want answers, too.

Since the NPR/ProPublica investigation, the Pentagon has launched a major overhaul of JPAC. Also, the longtime director of JPAC's central identification lab will eventually be replaced by a Navy captain with DNA expertise.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The remains of a World War II soldier who died in a Philippine prisoner of war camp have been identified. Private Arthur Bud Kelder was ID'd after legal battle between his family and the Pentagon. This came after a joint NPR-ProPublica investigation last year first exposed this story. NPR's Kelly McEvers reports.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: When he was a teenager, John Eakin and his grandpa went to visit his grandpa's sister in Chicago. Eakin saw a picture on the wall of a relative he'd never seen before.

JOHN EAKIN: I asked, who's this picture of? And grandpa was kind of choked up, and he said, that's Bud.

MCEVERS: Bud Kelder, who enlisted in the Army in 1941, served as a dental assistant in Manila, the Philippines, then ended up on the Bataan Peninsula. The Japanese invaded, took prisoners then marched thousands of Americans to POW camps. In late 1942, Bud Kelder died in one of those camps after suffering from malaria, a vitamin deficiency and diphtheria. All his family got, Eakin says, was a letter.

EAKIN: And I realized how much hurt the entire family had suffered because Bud's remains were never recovered. None of them really knew what happened to him.

MCEVERS: So Eakin decided to find out. He learned that Bud's remains were mixed with the remains of 13 other soldiers who died on the same day. They were labeled as unknown soldiers and buried in an American cemetery in Manila. But even though the family had evidence suggesting Bud was there, the Pentagon wouldn't dig up the graves. So Eakin filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 2009. And now, after years of motions and filings, the Pentagon has finally exhumed that group grave and matched Bud Kelder's remains with his family's DNA. Pentagon officials had no other comment. Eakin got the call from one of his cousins.

EAKIN: He was just over the moon excited. This is what we'd been waiting for.

MCEVERS: The federal agency tasked with doing this identification work is the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC. Our investigation last year found the agency to be slow, risk-averse and prone to outdated scientific practices. Eakin says he shouldn't have had to sue the agency to get Bud Kelder identified, that this should have been routine work. JPAC officials maintain the reason the process can be slow is they take great care to not just make a positive ID, which is easier now with DNA testing, but to identify and return as full a set of remains as possible so families can have closure. Just because Kelder's remains have been identified doesn't mean the case is over. Eakin says some of those other 13 families want answers, too. Since our investigation, the Pentagon has launched a major overhaul of JPAC. The longtime director of its central identification lab will eventually be replaced by a Navy captain who's an expert on DNA. Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.