JPAC’s Super Sleuths

As the widow of a Vietnam-era pilot can now attest, the work of forensic scientists at Hickam brings closure, relief, even happiness to families of missing military personnel

Steve Murray
Friday - December 29, 2006
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Patricia Scharf was happy to at last receive remains of her husband from Vietnam
Patricia Scharf was happy to at last receive remains
of her husband from Vietnam

When Patricia Scharf ran into a Smithsonian scientist at the Pentagon jewelry store in 1992, little did she know that their paths would cross again 14 years later, and that he would reconnect her with the only man she ever dated - the only man she ever loved.

Scharf’s husband, Capt. Charles J. Scharf, an Air Force pilot, was shot down Oct. 1, 1965 in the early years of the Vietnam War.

“I had always held the hope,” says Scharf. “As any woman with her husband, that he is somewhere either in a prison camp or he’s in a village. You hope for the best for his return.”


Unfortunately for Patricia, that return took more than 40 years, and by that time the only thing remaining of the handsome football player who won her heart as a high school senior were pieces of bone, shreds of clothing and parts of the jet that he so loved to fly.

“In my case I was, when they found some of the remains, I was very happy, because after a period of time when there is nobody in a prison and you do find the remains, you know that they are bringing him back,” says the Falls Church, Va., resident, her face full of pride and her eyes reddened at the reminder of her loss.

“I was happy. It gave me a little bit of relief knowing he didn’t suffer, he wasn’t in prison, he wasn’t beaten and he’s at peace. And now we just work on bringing him back and giving him a proper burial, and he’s coming home.”

Andrew Tyrell glues together a leg bone of a U.S. soldier killed in France in World War I
Andrew Tyrell glues together a leg bone of a U.S. soldier
killed in France in World War I

When it comes down to it, that’s exactly what Dr. Robert Mann, that former jewelry store customer, and the rest of the staff at JPAC do. They reunite families.

The name by itself offers little to indicate what goes on in this back corner of Hickam Air Force Base. JPAC seems to be just another acronym in an industry that has thousands of such confusing identifiers. But when you translate its parts, the importance becomes clear. The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command’s sole duty is to find and identify the remains of American servicemen and women, to give them the proper military honors and most importantly, to return them to their loved ones. Even if the families have been separated for 140 years.

On Dec. 31 1862, the USS Monitor - the nation’s first commissioned ironclad warship - capsized and sank in a storm off the coast of North Carolina with 20 men on board. The remains of two of the crewmembers are now at the Hickam laboratory awaiting the mystery of their identities to be revealed. “They came to this lab here because they are American sailors,” says Mann.

“Although they went missing 140-plus years ago, we still want to identify those American sailors because they served in the American Navy. So we have their skeletons here, we’ve cleaned them up. One of them is in his 20s. They are both white males. The other is in his 30s, and we’re working through genealogy and through DNA to try to identify these two sailors. And that’s pretty remarkable.”


Of course, not every case involves such historic significance. The great majority are just average men and women who gave their lives under extraordinary circumstances. Although the JPAC lab and offices look like any other nondescript building on the base, they are the home to the world’s largest forensic anthropology laboratory with a staff of 29 anthropologists, three forensic dentists and a support staff of 425 actively involved in putting together the pieces of a very dramatic and very personal puzzle.

As you can imagine, it’s also quite busy. “Our case load is very, very high. We’ve made 99 identifications this year, hopefully we will top 100,” says Mann at the time of this interview. In a typical year investigators identify an average of 70 remains - an impressive total, but not compared to the approximately 88,000 missing since World War II. Of those, only 35,000 are deemed recoverable as the majority were pilots lost over deep ocean or sailors who perished with their ships and are considered honorably buried by the U.S. Navy.

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