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The U.S. Army improved its laboratory and investigation methods after World War II to help the Graves Registration Service identify the unknown American war dead. In 1946 the Army turned to Dr. Harry L. Shapiro, chairman and curator of physical anthropology at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, to develop more advanced procedures and anatomical techniques in the identification process. Shapiro suggested creating a central laboratory in Europe where the bodies of the unknown soldiers could be sent. The new lab in Strasbourg, France, performed so well that similar central facilities were set up in the Pacific—one in Hawaii and the other in Manila.

During the lab’s processing phase, a set of remains would be placed on an operating table and examined by a team of four technicians. After removing any clothing or equipment from the remains, the technicians looked for identifying clues such as laundry marks, clothing size and nametags. They also needed to make sure there was no evidence the deceased had worn an enemy uniform.

The body or body parts were then washed and reexamined, particularly the chest cavity and abdomen, so the technicians could look for artifacts such as embedded dog tags. The body also was studied for gross abnormalities and surgical or accident scars. Finally, the technicians made a tooth chart and, if possible, took fingerprints. Personal effects found on or with the body were also scrutinized, including letters or fragments of letters, rings, pens, lockets and bracelets. Frequently those effects would be sent on to various specialists for further examination. If the soldier was found with a watch, for example, a watchmaker could help by tracing its serial number. One soldier was identified by a ring inscribed with his high school’s logo and engraved with his girlfriend’s initials. In that case, the soldier’s former high school principal provided the necessary ID.

For each set of remains, the technicians compiled an anatomical chart showing all missing body parts, and an estimate of the individual’s height. If a skull was present, it was measured to determine age and race. At the end of the process, the body would be wrapped in a clean sheet and blanket, placed in a coffin, sent to a shipping room and draped with an American flag. If the remains were still unidentified, the casket would be marked with an X.


Originally published in the February 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.