HONOLULU (AP) — Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Thursday toured a forensics laboratory that is trying to positively identify human remains which, just hours earlier in Malaysia, he had saluted as they were returned to U.S. custody.
The remains are believed to be those of a crewmember aboard a C-47B cargo plane that slammed into a jungle-covered mountainside Nov. 27, 1945 while flying from Singapore to a Malaysia airfield just months after World War II ended.
Three servicemen were aboard; only one set of remains has been recovered, according to a senior defense official traveling with Carter. The official was not authorized to discuss details of the case until the lab work is finished and so spoke on condition of anonymity.
The wreckage was spotted and clearly associated with the lost C-47B as long ago as 1966, but the Pentagon did not undertake an on-site recovery effort until this year. The remains were found and removed from the crash site during a joint U.S.-Malaysian expedition in August and September.
U.S. and Malaysian military personnel worked together on the project, culminating in a somber repatriation ceremony in Kuala Lumpur attended by Carter, who was in the Malaysian capital to attend security talks with Asian defense ministers.
A polished wooden box containing an undisclosed amount of human remains was handed over to a U.S. military team, placed inside a larger metal container and put aboard a C-17 transport for the flight to Honolulu. A U.S. soldier played taps as the ceremony ended. Carter looked on in silence. He later greeted the U.S. servicemen and reminded them of the government's enduring -- but many times unfulfilled -- promise to always recover those lost in battle.
Several hours after the ceremony, Carter followed the C-17's route, crossing the International Dateline and arriving in Honolulu at midday Thursday for talks about China and other topics at U.S. Pacific Command headquarters. Afterward, he visited the offices of the Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency, including its identification laboratory.
Reporters traveling with Carter were not permitted to accompany him inside the lab, but the senior defense official who was present during the tour said Carter spoke to some of the scientists working on the remains from the Malaysia case.
By tracking the path of the recovered remains from Kuala Lumpur to Honolulu, Carter was highlighting the Pentagon's stated commitment to families of the thousands of servicemen still unaccounted for from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. Many of those families have, over the years, complained bitterly of delay and even neglect from the Pentagon agencies charged with finding, recovering and identifying remains from overseas wars.
Carter's predecessor at the Pentagon, Chuck Hagel, ordered the MIA accounting bureaucracy to reorganize and consolidate as part of an effort to improve its performance, which also has come under criticism in Congress.
The Malaysia C-47B crew case is notable in part for the fact that the Pentagon says it is the first time it has recovered remains from the Southeast Asian nation.
U.S. officials refused to name the individual whose remains were recovered and flown to Hawaii, nor would they name any of the three servicemen who were aboard the plane when it crashed. However, it has been widely known for years that the three men aboard were Judson Baskett, William H. Myers and Donald E. Jones. The three were presumed to have died but have been listed for the 70 years since as missing in action.
The exact cause of the crash is unclear.
The Pentagon says 50 U.S. military members are still listed as missing in action in Malaysia. Thousands more who were lost during the Vietnam war are unaccounted for from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries. Still more are unaccounted for from the Korean War and from World War II, including thousands lost at sea.