One family lost 2 sons during WWII. It took 80 years to bring the last soldier home.

Elsie Thompson, the youngest of seven siblings, lost two brothers during World War II. Her brother Phillip Engesser was brought home to be buried, but her eldest brother, Marcus Engesser, is only now being returned to his California hometown over 80 years following his demise, thanks to an identification by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Engesser served in Company L of the 31st Infantry Regiment during World War II, operating in the Philippines. He was captured following the American surrender of the Bataan Peninsula in April 1942, the DPAA reported, and endured the Bataan death march before being interned in an infamous prison camp. He succumbed to malaria in September 1942, and his remains were interred in a mass grave at the camp. Over 2,800 American soldiers perished at the camp before its liberation in 1945, the agency mentioned.

Marcus Engesser.

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency

In 1947, that grave was unearthed, and the U.S. Army attempted to identify the soldiers interred there. At that time, most of the remains were deemed unidentifiable and were buried at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial as Unknowns. Engesser’s name was inscribed on the Walls of the Missing at the cemetery.

Thompson, 92, recalled Engesser as a “kind” and “attractive” older brother. It was challenging for her family, she mentioned, to never have his remains. Thompson’s daughter, Joanne Smith, even remembered her grandmother penning a letter to the Army searching for Engesser’s body so he could be laid to rest alongside family. “My mother endured a lot because she lost several sons during the war,” Thompson shared. “I believe it was pretty tough on my mom. (Marcus) is the only one, we didn’t have any memento of him.”

In 2018, the unknown remains buried at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial were disinterred anew to be examined by the DPAA. Mitochondrial DNA analysis, dental and anthropological analysis, along with other evidence, enabled scientists at the DPAA’s laboratory to conclusively identify some of the remains as belonging to Engesser in 2023. Thompson mentioned that she was notified of the identification in 2024, adding that the closure is “marvelous.” “It was emotional to discover what was happening with Marky,” said Thompson, noting that she plans to inter Engesser’s remains with her mother, brothers, and other family members. “It’s been quite an experience.”

Thompson is just one of many who have had their family members’ remains returned to them through the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. The agency accounted for 158 missing soldiers last year. These identifications provide closure to families and allow fallen soldiers the chance to be buried at home.

The call to identify and recover fallen soldiers became a prominent national concern during the Vietnam War, according to Ashley Wright, a public affairs specialist with the DPAA. The United States has “always tried to account for our missing,” Wright stated, beginning with the American Graves Registration Command post-World War II. That command attempted to make identifications based on the best available science of the time, Wright explained.

As science has advanced so have recoveries and identifications. There are about 72,000 soldiers from World War II, around 7,500 from the Korean War, and more than 1,550 from the Vietnam War that remain unaccounted. But from the first Gulf Wars, only six soldiers are unaccounted for, Wright said, and there are no unaccounted soldiers from the war in Afghanistan. Technological advancements have played a significant role in recent conflicts to ensure soldiers are identified and repatriated. “There’s just a steep decline with each conflict,” Wright noted. “The cases we’re working on now are not straightforward, or they would have been resolved earlier. These are complicated cases. These are challenging cases. … We’re continuing to do what we can to bring these families answers.”

Wright elaborated that “history, diplomacy, and science converge” to aid the DPAA laboratory in making identifications. The process begins with history: Researchers and experts at the agency start by scouring archival records to gather as much information as possible about where a fallen soldier was last seen. Investigative teams will travel to the location to talk to any surviving witnesses and examine the area for clues to confirm if someone went missing there.

The agency operates in 46 countries, with one exception being North Korea. Diplomacy even extends to individual locals, Wright added, as sometimes a fallen soldier might have vanished on what is now private property.

Korean War POW identified, buried near fellow vet and friend

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Once DPAA researchers ascertain they are in the correct area, a recovery mission is dispatched. These teams, consisting of 15 to 25 people, include explosive ordnance disposal experts who can handle live ammunition that may be present. Medical personnel, senior recovery experts, and forensic photographers are also part of these teams, and up to 100 locals might participate in physically excavating and searching for remains. Recovery missions usually spend 30 to 60 days in the field, Wright explained, before returning to the DPAA laboratory.

Back at the lab, multiple scientific methods are employed to attempt to identify fallen soldiers. Forensic odontologists can examine medical records and compare them to teeth found in the field, matching dental evidence to profiles of missing soldiers. Other distinctive bones, like clavicles, are also compared. For Korean War soldiers, experts can compare tuberculosis skin test results taken before deployment to the remains discovered.

The remains are then arranged and X-rayed for further matching, with other forms of analysis including mitochondrial DNA analysis and isotope analysis, which can determine what a person consumed decades ago. This can help distinguish American soldiers – who generally had a corn-based diet – from locals with different dietary habits. The DPAA has also collected comparison DNA from family members, such as Thompson. Once a fallen soldier is tentatively identified, family members are asked to provide a reference sample of DNA. Lastly, a medical examiner authorizes a report confirming the identification, and service casualty officers then contact family members for a comprehensive briefing. The process is meticulous.Families can spend ages wondering what transpired to their dear one, Wright mentioned, akin to how Thompson did. “Each case is unique and presents its own difficulties, and each case is important,” Wright stated. “Every one of these situations has a family member. Every one of them has a confidant who still ponders what occurred to them. That figure is certainly not overlooked by us in any manner, whatsoever.”

Members of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency carry a transfer case during a repatriation ceremony for service members missing in action from the battle of Tarawa, Republic of Kiribati, July 25, 2017.

Members of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency carry a transfer case during a repatriation ceremony for service members missing in action from the battle of Tarawa, Republic of Kiribati, July 25, 2017.

Defense Department/William Dasher

Bringing resolution to families Wright remarked that the DPAA’s mission is to provide closure to relatives and loved ones like Thompson and Smith. Upon notifying family members about the identification of their dear one, the military collaborates with the families to arrange a funeral with full military tributes. “Even if we merely locate and identify a single tooth, they will receive full military tributes because they made that ultimate sacrifice,” Wright declared.

Smith mentioned that obtaining this closure has been “incredible” for her family and expressed she is privileged that her uncle will be granted a complete military funeral. She added that she and Thompson would be able to meet the airplane delivering Engesser‘s remains to California at the tarmac. They furthermore acquired Engesser‘s decorations.

“My grandmother endured so much … After all these years, to see it come full circle, to have (Engesser) return home and be interred with his mother, it just signifies a lot,” Smith stated. “I’m so appreciative that my mom was alive to witness this. I know it means a great deal to her to have her brother back on American soil.”

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Kerry Breen

Kerry Breen is a news editor. A graduate of New York University’s Arthur L. Carter School of Journalism, she formerly served at NBC News’ TODAY Digital. She reports on current affairs, breaking news and topics including substance use.

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