As her mother lay dying in 2019, Janet Clement promised she would “try to bring Harry home.”
“Harry” was Army Sgt. Henry L. “Harry” Younge, her mother’s brother, a tail-gunner on a B-29 shot down over Japan in April 1945. He died a month later when the Tokyo prison where he was being held was leveled by U.S. air raids. He was 20 years old. His remains were never identified, though it is believed his remains and others were buried at the prison site and later moved to an American cemetery in the Philippines.
Clement, 73, a retired schoolteacher living in Richmond, along with families of other missing servicemen who died in the bombing or resulting fire at the prison, have been pressing the military, lobbying lawmakers and generally battling bureaucracy to repatriate the remains of their loved ones to the United States. The process has been complex, often slow and sometimes exasperating.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, whose mission is to recover U.S. military personnel listed as prisoners of war or missing in action, has not moved fast enough in the minds of Clement and other families connected to the Tokyo prison fire who have waited almost eight decades for some sort of emotional closure. Advancements in technology have made them feel tantalizingly close to finding their loved ones, an optimism offset by what they view as bureaucratic mixed signals and a perplexing lack of action.
“I’m rather frustrated,” Clement said.
Their efforts received a boost this week when 17 U.S. senators signed a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, requesting a policy exemption that would allow the “immediate disinterment of the American service members who died in the 1945 Tokyo military prison fire and remain buried as ‘Unknowns’ at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial.”
And then Thursday, DPAA said in a statement to the Richmond Times-Dispatch that it was doing just that and is preparing a request for disinterment. It was unclear how long the approval process would take or when the actual disinterment might begin, but the DPAA statement cautioned that the scientific process is “meticulous and methodical and can take a few years ... with no assurance of how many of the remains can be identified.”
When told of the DPAA statement, Clement said she was “cautiously optimistic that the DPAA will finally fulfill the promises made to my family over the past 76 years, by keeping us apprised of their progress in greater detail than previously.”
This all comes against the backdrop of National POW/MIA Recognition Day, which is commemorated annually on the third Friday of September. According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, whose mission is to recover U.S. military personnel listed as prisoners of war or missing in action while providing “the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and the nation,” there are almost 82,000 Americans still missing from past wars: primarily World War II (72,000), the Korean War (8,000) and the Vietnam War (1,600). About half of the 82,000 are presumed lost at sea.
At issue has been a Department of Defense policy involving “unknowns” buried in a common grave and the number of DNA samples required from descendants in order for the identification process to proceed. In its Thursday statement, DPAA explained that after WWII, the American Graves Registration Service recovered 65 remains from a common grave at the Tokyo prison site that was purported to contain those who died during the air raids.
Of those remains, DPAA said, 25 were identified as U.S. service members and one set was determined to be non-American and returned to Japan, leaving 39 sets of remains that could not be identified. They were buried as “Unknowns” in Manila.
Further research indicated there are 37 unaccounted-for Americans potentially associated with the 39 “unknowns,” according to DPAA. According to DOD policy, DNA samples are required from at least 60% of families representing all 62 casualties, including the 25 previously identified, because the remains had been commingled. Families had argued that counting the previously identified 25 raised the bar unnecessarily high when it came to tracking down family members from so long ago.
In a new development Thursday, DPAA said in its statement that it had reached the necessary threshold — or apparently came close enough — recently receiving additional DNA samples, bringing its number to 37, or 59.6% of the total needed.
In their letter dated Sept. 15 to the defense secretary, the 17 senators apparently were aware of the updated numbers and had asked the department to round up to 60.
“Given the small margin ... and the fact that almost half of the men were identified, these families have met the intent of the DoD’s instruction and should not have to wait any longer for answers,” the senators wrote.
In the era of swing music, Harry Younge, who grew up on New York’s Long Island, was a talented trumpet player who reportedly entertained his crewmates, even in flight. According to a local newspaper account about his disappearance, Younge was to be featured on a broadcast of the Eddie Cantor national radio show in late April 1945. Family members were on their way to the New York radio station when they were informed by station officials that Younge was “not available.” It turns out, his family learned weeks later, his plane had not returned to its base a week before the radio episode, and he was considered missing in action.
For a year, his family knew nothing more. At one point, word reached the family from the wife of another crew member that Younge had been liberated and was seen alive on Guam, where he had been stationed. The report proved to be erroneous.
Then, in April 1946, after the war was over, the War Department notified the family that Younge had indeed survived the crash, but had been captured by the Japanese and held for more than a month before he was killed in a prison camp during an air raid on May 26, 1945. His remains were never recovered.
His family mourned, but also was left in a state of uncertainty.
“I think the lack of a physical recovery, the lack of specific information about what happened to cause his death and the initial confusion with a belief he was still alive coalesced into lost hopes and dreams that couldn’t be resolved,” said Clement, who taught at Sandston Elementary in Henrico County.
Younge’s mother — Clement’s grandmother — never came to terms with the loss of her son, Clement said. She recalled her grandmother, in the early stages of dementia in the 1970s, hearing news reports about the return of American prisoners of war from Vietnam.
“She looked at me and said, ‘Do you think they found Harry?’” said Clement, who explained this was another war and it had been three decades since her son had gone missing. “Her whole face just crumpled. I think that’s when I realized the depth of losing a child and never knowing what happened.”
In a 1985 Associated Press story about WWII MIAs, Clement’s mother, Betty DeWitt, was quoted as saying the family “hoped when the war was over there might be a chance he was still alive, then we tried to find out what happened. We never did.”
Details of what happened to Younge emerged over the years as eyewitness accounts eventually filled in the gaps of official records, though the specifics didn’t always reach the family in a timely manner.
Clement learned the gruesome truth that American prisoners had been left to die in the fire following the bombing raid or released from their cells and killed by their Japanese captors. She also learned that remains of the American victims had been buried on the prison site in mass graves, which in 1946 were exhumed by the U.S. Army.
The Japanese government supplied a list of more than 60 individuals potentially within the prison at the time of the raid, but the list was not deemed totally reliable, according to U.S. government documents. The Army tried to identify as many of the remains as possible, and 25 of the soldiers eventually were. Younge was not among them, and his remains were officially deemed “non-recoverable.”
There was something else Clement learned only decades later: The unknown remains from the Tokyo prison fire were interred in the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines.
It pains Clement to know her mother and grandmother never knew about Younge’s possible burial in Manila, where the family had relatives.
“All the years Nana and Mom were wondering about Harry, they very easily could have mourned him at the Manila cemetery,” Clement said.
In that 1985 AP story that quoted Clement’s mother, there also was this passage:
But after all these years, there is little pressure on the Pentagon to account for the missing from World War II, who have been declared dead. Besides, the global nature of the fighting would make such a mission impossible to fulfill.
“We haven’t closed the door, but the possibility of resolving these cases is so slim after all these years,” said an Army official speaking on condition he not be identified.
However, technological advances, particularly in the use of DNA, have greatly improved the chances of identification.
Clement and other families want DPAA to exhume the “unknown” remains from the Manila cemetery and conduct DNA testing. In Clement’s case, she and a cousin have provided DNA samples, as have families of other men whose remains are presumed to be buried in Manila.
Through her research about her uncle, Clement connected with Michael Krehl, a descendant of another of the men whose remains are believed buried in Manila. Krehl is the driving force of the group of families, trying to get answers and action from DPAA, even performing some of the investigative work themselves as far as finding relatives for DNA samples.
“It feels like we’ve provided these folks everything they would need to move this ahead,” Krehl said in a phone interview from Florida. “We have remains in the ground in Manila. What are we waiting on?”
Krehl is on a quest he scarcely could have imagined five years ago, when he learned from a cousin that his grandfather, Sgt. Leonard J. McNeill, had been killed in WWII. Krehl, who was not born until 1963, grew up never knowing about McNeill. The only grandfather he ever knew turned out to be the second husband of his grandmother, whose life apparently was “completely destroyed” by the death of her first husband, Krehl said, and he never heard any family member speak of McNeill.
Krehl came to learn the Canadian-born McNeill spent his later childhood in Massachusetts and after high school moved to Florida, where he worked as a soda clerk and bartender, married and had three children. He was already 26 when he volunteered for the Army Air Forces and became a tail-gunner on a B-29 crew based in Saipan.
On a bombing mission on April 1, 1945, the plane was shot down. McNeill survived, was captured and, like Younge, wound up at Tokyo Military Prison. McNeill’s remains also were never found. Krehl believes his grandfather’s remains are in Manila or possibly even at the prison site, which remains a green space, adjacent to a school and athletic fields — or they could be somewhere else entirely, perhaps in a grave under another soldier’s name, a mistaken identification made decades before the advent of modern forensics.
“The unresolved grief is now manifesting itself in my generation,” Krehl said. “It’s got a tight grip on me. The objective is to bring some closure to it so I can get on with my life.”
More importantly, he said, “These guys need to come home.”