Sunday, 25 August 2013

Pearl Harbor victims: Bring them home – or let them rest in peace?

A plan to use DNA to identify the remains of sailors and Marines killed in the Pearl Harbor attack has caused a split within the military community over what to do with the remains of thousands of unknown service members from the wars of the mid-20th century.

Should these bodies be dug up and returned home, at considerable cost, to places like Cozad, Bloomfield and Central City, Neb., in keeping with the sentiment “no one left behind”? Or should they be left in their decades-old resting places far from home?

Thanks to DNA technology and an injection of cash from Congress, there's a plan to identify the remains of nearly 400 “unknown” sailors and Marines from the battleship USS Oklahoma, torpedoed and sunk in the first minutes of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Seventeen of the sailors are from Nebraska and western Iowa.

The task likely would take place at a giant new military forensics lab at Offutt Air Force Base.

The logistics would be daunting. Most of the Pearl Harbor dead were entombed anonymously, their remains mingled with those of their shipmates. They are scattered in dozens of modest group tombs throughout Honolulu's famous Punchbowl cemetery, remote from their families.

A single USS Oklahoma grave opened in 2003 yielded five identifiable sets of remains, each returned to grateful families and buried with full military honors.

“These towns are eager to get these kids back, and honor them,” said Paul Goodyear, 95, president of the USS Oklahoma Association and a Pearl Harbor survivor. “They go all out. You'd have thought it was Independence Day.”

The Navy has proposed forming a working group, representing several military commands involved in finding and identifying unknown remains, to make decisions about the Oklahoma dead. What that group does could set a precedent for other group remains.

The job of identifying the Pearl Harbor dead has fallen to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. A precursor of the command was formed 20 years ago and assigned the permanent job of finding and identifying missing service members from the Vietnam War. Later, Congress asked it to search for those lost during the Korean and Cold Wars, and for World War II air crews lost in the Pacific.

Some veterans say JPAC long resisted veterans' pleas to identify some of the hundreds of unknowns buried just a few miles from its Honolulu headquarters in the Punchbowl, an extinct volcano converted to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific after World War II.

“They've got these kids right under their noses, and they won't dig them up,” Goodyear complained.

The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command public affairs office didn't respond to four requests over the past two weeks for an interview with senior JPAC leaders.

A Government Accountability Office audit released in June said the Defense Department didn't assign the job of identifying World War II veterans other than Pacific air crews until 2009.

In that year, Congress substantially boosted the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command budget, which had jumped from $51 million in 2008 to nearly $100 million four years later, and ordered it to boost its identifications from about 70 per year to 200 by 2015.

Traditionally JPAC had focused on complex and costly archaeological excavations in Korea, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. The new quota and expanded mission made the command more receptive to opening the graves of the unknowns from the Oklahoma. John Byrd, director of JPAC's Central Identification Laboratory, recently told the Oklahoman newspaper of Oklahoma City he thought at least three-quarters of the ship's dead could be identified using DNA technology.

Accordingly, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command has requested permission to open all of the graves from the Oklahoma, as well as graves at the Punchbowl containing smaller numbers of bones linked to the Pearl Harbor battleships California (100 dead) and West Virginia (66 dead). The decision is up to the Army, which holds authority over the graves of all unknowns.

JPAC's plan has run into opposition from the Navy. Officials there have said they don't like the idea of exposing long-buried remains “outside of the sanctity of the grave” for an accounting that could take years and still leave many remains unidentified. The Navy has no authority in the matter, but voices concern because the single grave that was opened in 2003 yielded not only the five identified sailors but also the bones of about 100 more that aren't yet identified and remain in JPAC's lab.

Lt. Cmdr. Sarah Flaherty said the Navy hopes to re-inter those remains in a ceremony on Dec. 7, 2014. They're seeking the Army's support.

“(The Navy) maintains any ID effort will take many years, if not decades,” Flaherty said. “A memorial ceremony in the near future offers temporary closure and a cogent place for survivors to treat as a final resting place in the interim.”

The conflict sheds light on the troubled history of the Oklahoma's remains.

For months after the attack, the Oklahoma remained overturned in the shallow channel next to Ford Island, right where the battleship USS Missouri is now moored.

Between July 1942 and November 1943, the Navy worked to right the ship. According to author Jeff Phister's 2008 book, “Battleship Oklahoma BB-37,” as divers recovered bodies from the ship, they were bagged, with the skull separate from other remains for future identification using dental records. They were placed in flag-draped coffins and moved to shore on barges as Marine honor guards stood at attention.

The remains were buried in two Honolulu cemeteries until after the war. Then the American Graves Registration Service dug up the bodies in hopes of identifying them.

What they found instead was a tangled mess of oil-soaked bones, hopelessly mixed up and nearly impossible to identify, according to a history compiled in 2010 by military historian Heather Harris.

Twenty-seven skulls were identified from dental remains and placed with torsos, arms and legs drawn from the rest of the remains. Plans were discussed to return those reconstructed skeletons to their families.

But Dr. Mildred Trotter, a pioneer in the field of forensic anthropology who was hired to oversee the process, recoiled at the idea, according to a May 1949 memo Harris discovered in Trotter's papers after her death.

Officials in Hawaii and Washington argued over how to rebury the remains. The American Graves Registration Service considered returning just the skulls to the families, but decided it was wrong to return partial remains.

Finally, the bones were segregated by body part, with skulls buried together, arms together, legs together, and so forth, and placed in plots scattered throughout the Punchbowl.

There they might have rested permanently if Ray Emory, a Pearl Harbor survivor, had not retired to Hawaii in the mid-1980s.

Soon after his arrival, he trekked up to the Punchbowl.

“I wanted to know where the Pearl Harbor grave sites were,” Emory, now 92, recalled in a phone conversation last week. “They couldn't tell me.”

He walked the cemetery repeatedly and found dozens of graves marked “Unknown, Dec. 7, 1941.” Through documents acquired using the Freedom of Information Act, he began a years-long process of assembling clues to find who the missing dead might be, and in which graves they might lie. “It was like a jigsaw puzzle,” Emory said. He found out about the 27 skulls that had been identified in 1949, and he traced some of them to individual graves. His work led to the addition in 2002 of ship names to many of the unknowns' grave markers. And his prodding led the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Co

mmand to open the single grave in 2003. The divisions within the military are reflected in the families, too.

Sheri Spomer, 41, wants to see her uncle Gerald Clayton buried next to his parents in his hometown of Central City. Clayton was a 21-year-old storekeeper second-class the day he died aboard the Oklahoma.

“There was nothing dignified in the way the Navy handled the burial of my uncle and all those other men. They deserve more than being buried together as 'unknown,' ” Spomer said. “They were not unknown to their families, and they certainly have not been forgotten.”

Eva Maule, 92, of Bloomfield, said the family of her late husband, Donald, put a marker in the local cemetery to honor his brother, Joseph Maule, who died aboard the Oklahoma, even though his body was never recovered. She doesn't see any need for a big fuss now.

“To my notion, I think they should leave all the bones buried there,” she said.

Jean Cook Sheehan, 90, was close to her brother, Grant Cook Jr., who was two years older. Their mother died when both were babies. An aunt and uncle raised them in their hometown of Cozad.

She said Grant quit his job at a garage in 1940 to join the Navy and find adventure. That's how he landed in Pearl Harbor.

Sheehan learned of the attack after coming home from a Sunday movie matinee. She shared the nation's numb horror, and feared for her brother.

“When I heard my brother was missing — just complete shock, so much sadness,” said Sheehan, who now lives in Lecanto, Fla. “It was hard for us to believe that he really was gone.”

She said her father never forgave himself for signing the papers that allowed his son and namesake to enlist before he was 21.

She has mixed feelings about unsealing the Oklahoma graves. At her age, she doesn't imagine returning to Cozad to visit even if he were to come back. The VFW post that carries his name seems like a fitting memorial.

“From what I understand, the remains are in an absolutely beautiful place. One thought is, why disturb them?” she said. “On the other hand, it would be nice to know that, if they are identified, he is back home.”

In recent years, no one has spent more time talking with Oklahoma families than Dee Dee King, a Texas-based forensic genealogist hired by JPAC in 2009 to find the next of kin and ask for DNA samples that might help identify the unknowns. She has found the families of all but eight.

She said the losses are surprisingly fresh, more than 70 years after Pearl Harbor.

“Some of these people have the most heartbreaking stories to tell,” she said.

The Facebook page for her company, Forensic Genealogists, features the eternally youthful photos of the Oklahoma sailors. She feels a connection to them.

“These guys want to be found,” King said. “I just know it.”

Sunday 25 August 2013

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Mexico City mass kidnapping highlight's Country's battle with drug gang violence

The bodies were headless and covered in lime and asbestos, hidden under a thick concrete slab – young men and women not seen since they went out partying in an upscale area of Mexico's capital nearly three months ago.

As the families of 12 missing youths settled in Saturday for an anguished wait for DNA identification, they and others said this week's gruesome discovery at a muddy mass grave in the countryside east of Mexico City was bitter vindication for those who have said all along that the city's top law-enforcement officials downplayed the disappearances and were at best incompetent in trying to find their loved ones.

The bodies were only found once federal investigators stepped in – after waiting impatiently for local police to make progress.

The kidnapping and murder has revealed a gangland battle for control of the lucrative drug trade in the poshest bars and nightclubs of a megalopolis that had been an oasis of calm during Mexico's nearly seven-year drug war. The head of Mexico City police on Saturday deployed more officers and a helicopter to some of the city's upscale districts along with the rough neighborhood of Tepito where most of the victims lived, fearing retaliatory attacks.

A federal official who helped discover the bodies said that they were found separately from their heads in what could be a frightening echo of the brutal mutilations of drug cartel victims in other parts of Mexico. The official spoke condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation.

"Mexico City is not a bubble. If we don't put a stop to it, we're going to fall into a serious security problem," said Miguel Amelio Gomez, a security consultant and former investigative police chief for Mexico City's attorney-general.

The kidnapping occurred three months ago midday on a sunny Sunday in an upscale district in the heart of Mexico City, five cars pulled up outside the after-hours club known as Heaven, a block from federal police administrative offices and the U.S. Embassy. Eight men and four women who had been partying all night left and climbed inside, grainy surveillance video shows.

Then they vanished.

Mexico City police said they were working on the case. But after more than two months of little progress, federal investigators were brought in. They discovered 13 bodies, apparently the 12 young victims and an unidentified person, on Aug. 16 on a ranch 35 miles from where they disappeared. Tattoos and dental work identified at least five of the victims from the Heaven club. Work to identify the rest continued Saturday, and families pleaded for the remains to also be examined by forensic experts abroad arguing they can't trust their country's investigators.

Relatives of the 12 expressed grief, frustration and mistrust at the discovery. And they accused Mexico City's law-enforcement authorities of moving slowly on the sensitive investigation, perhaps because they were afraid of what it might reveal.

"It's all really confusing to us," Beatriz Loza, the aunt of victim Monserrat Loza, said Saturday. "The investigation failed. I can't believe that three months have passed."

Four current and former law-enforcement officials told The Associated Press the massacre appears to have been orchestrated by a wealthy and powerful drug gang as revenge and a warning to a group of poorer interlopers trying to seize territory in some of the city's trendiest neighborhoods.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal details of the ongoing investigation.

With some 100,000 police officers in the capital, Mexico's largest cartels have little public presence here. The retail drug business is booming, however, and local drug gangs collectively make $100-200 million a day selling marijuana, cocaine and hallucinogens, said Gomez, the former district-attorney's investigative chief.

Investigators told the AP they believe dealers from the poor eastern neighborhood of Tepito have been trying to move in on the Union of Insurgentes, a gang that's named after the city's prosperous main north-south thoroughfare and controls sales in virtually all of the nightspots in the wealthiest parts of the city. The gang in control hires women as spies to flirt with potential rivals looking to sell drugs on their territory, and valets are used as lookouts, Gomez said. Corrupt police with annual salaries of less than $10,000 are paid to turn a blind eye.

Two owners of the Heaven bar, Mario Ledezma and Ernesto Espinosa Lobo, have been arrested. Some of the witnesses have testified that both were working with the Union of Insurgentes, according to an investigative document written by Mexico City prosecutors and shown to the AP by a person with access to the case files.

Ledezma claimed in a statement to authorities that he was threatened by armed men from the gang who informed him that they were going to sell drugs in his bars – and kill him if he objected.

Ledezma said they told him if they ever saw other people dealing in the bars they had claimed as territory, those rivals would disappear.

Of the 12 victims, at least some had family ties to a Tepito gang.

One, Jerzy Ortiz, has a father, Jorge, who is currently imprisoned for extortion, organized crime, homicide and robbery. Another victim was Said Sanchez, whose father is serving a 23-year prison sentence for similar crimes.

Mexico City Attorney-General Rodolfo Rios has said the Heaven case was also connected to a murder two days earlier in a nightclub in the trendy Condesa neighborhood, where an alleged drug dealer was taken out onto the street and shot in the head.

An official with the Mexico City prosecutor's office told the AP that investigators there are looking into whether the gang feud was behind other deadly incidents in the capital around the same time.

In one case from April, relatives of five other young men reported that loved ones had been taken from a bar called Virtual in the same area as Heaven. Relatives said that when they filed missing persons' reports authorities asked them to stay quiet for their own safety.

Surveillance camera footage that could have helped solve the mystery disappeared eight days after the kidnapping, according to the prosecutor's official, who wasn't authorized to speak about the case.

In the Heaven case, families started to report the missing the next day but nothing happened until four days later when the relatives blocked streets in a public protest. Even then the case seemed to be going slowly, with leads turning up and immediately going cold, and Mexico City officials repeatedly emphasizing that the case was no sign of a broader problem of insecurity in the capital.

"They have many elements, many people, but where are the victims?" Leticia Ponce, mother of 16-year-old Jerzy Ortiz, one of the missing, asked in July. "Are they really trying to find them?"

The break came on Aug. 16, when federal investigators were searching a suburban area east of Mexico City. Attorney-General Jesus Murillo Karam said last week that the investigators were out on a completely different case when they stumbled across the ranch. But the official with the federal prosecutor's officer told the AP that federal investigators had been assigned specifically to look for the Heaven victims in neighboring Mexico state, a sign of impatience with efforts by police in the capital.

The investigators, following informants, had heard that the kidnappers might be in rural Tlalmanalco, already known as a spot that was popular among criminal gangs. In their search, they came upon an armed man near a cemetery who took off in his truck at the sight of investigators, the federal official said.

The officers followed him onto a ranch known as La Negra, thinking perhaps they would find a "safe house," where criminals hide guns, victims or themselves. They returned several times to move on the wooded property, where they found cows, turkeys and horses, plus an unfinished shed.

They got a search warrant on Wednesday to look for weapons. When they arrived on the ranch, they found bags of clothing and a box full of cellphones.

When they started questioning two men living on the property, the men got nervous and investigators got suspicious. Under separate questioning, the two gave different stories. Finally one confessed that someone had buried bodies on the ranch and led them to the site. By Wednesday night, federal and Mexico state authorities were mounting a full-scale excavation.

Sunday 25 August 2013 _______

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Mexico migrant cargo train 'La Bestia' derails, at least five dead

At least five people were killed when a cargo train nicknamed "La Bestia," or "The Beast," on which would-be migrants hitch rides toward the U.S. border, derailed in a remote area of southern Mexico on Sunday, emergency services said.

Luis Felipe Puente, national emergency service coordinator, said on Twitter that 35 people were injured, 16 seriously, in the accident in Huimanguillo in the southern state of Tabasco and the death toll could rise.

Ambulances were unable to reach the scene because of the difficult terrain. The site could only be reached helicopter or boat. A photograph from the scene obtained by Reuters showed freight cars on their sides next to the tracks. Officials said eight of the 12 cars overturned, and that a Honduran man was among the dead.

"This train carries a lot of (illegal) migrants from Central America," Cesar Burelo, emergency services director in Tabasco, told local television. "(Those five) were the visible dead," he added. "It could be that as the structure of the train is removed ... more bodies could appear."

Sixteen of the injured had been transported to local hospitals, Burelo said.

He added it would be difficult to determine the total number of people who were aboard at the time of the pre-dawn accident.

"It's very likely that (surviving travellers) have left the scene."

The infamous Zeta drug gang operates along the route where the train passes, and have in the past kidnapped migrants to traffic drugs.

Migrants often jump aboard La Bestia to hitch rides under cover of darkness. At times, several hundred migrants have been found on the train, either in freight cars or sitting on top.

Mexico's foreign ministry said it was assisting Central American embassies whose citizens were affected by the crash.

Sunday 25 August 2013

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3 more bodies recovered from INS Sindhurakshak

Three more bodies have been extricated from INS Sindhurakshak submarine that sank at the Naval Dockyard in Mumbai after two blasts ripped through its hull on August 13.

“Since the past three days, we have been receiving one body for post mortem each day. The cause of death has been reserved until the histopathology and other forensic reports arrive. The bodies are intact with spinal cords,” said Dr TP Lahane, dean of JJ Hospital in Byculla. Sources at the hospital said that the prima facie cause of death is burns.

On August 19, the hospital had received the seventh body for the post mortem.

The process to identify the body has been initiated. Doctors at JJ Hospital’s forensic department have collected the tooth and bone samples for DNA identification have been sent samples to the Kalina Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL).

Dr Lahane said that the post mortem on the ten bodies has been completed and they are lying at the hospital’s morgue.

“We have not handed over the body (to the navy),” said Dr Lahane. According to the sources, the hospital also took X-ray scans of the bones to see if any shrapnel was lodged.

INS Sindhurakshak was returned in January by a Russian shipyard after a Rs480-crore overhaul meant to increase the warship’s life by 10 years.

Built in 1997 at St Petersburg, Russia, in 1997, the submarine was designed to patrol and to protect naval communications, assault warships, submarines and land targets, and perform naval reconnaissance.

Sunday 25 August 2013

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Shetland helicopter crash: Fourth body recovered

The body of the fourth victim of a North Sea helicopter crash has been recovered from the aircraft wreckage.

Four people were killed when the Super Puma, operated by CHC for oil firm Total and carrying oil workers from the Borgsten Dolphin platform., plunged into the sea off Shetland on Friday evening after suffering a ‘catastrophic’ loss of power.

Rescuers recovered three bodies in the aftermath of the crash and the fourth was removed from the wreckage this afternoon.

This brings the total number of bodies recovered to four, with two people remaining in hospital in Lerwick with non-life threatening injuries. A further twelve people were released from hospital and returned to Aberdeen on Saturday 24 August.

Chief Inspector Angus MacInnes, from Police Scotland, said: “The fourth person was recovered from the wreckage a short time ago and we have deployed family liaison officers to support those who have lost loved ones. We are also working with the industry to help support all of those affected.

Those who died have been named as Duncan Munro, 46, from Bishop Auckland, County Durham; George Allison, 57, from Winchester, Hampshire; Sarah Darnley, 45, from Elgin; and 59-year-old Gary McCrossan, from Inverness.

Helicopter operator CHC said the aircraft lost communication as it approached the airport on the southern tip of Shetland’s main island.

One Total employee was on board and the remainder worked for contract companies, including those killed.

A team from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch has travelled to Aberdeen to carry out initial inquiries into the incident.

Jim Nicholson, RNLI rescue co-ordinator, said: ‘’There appears to have been a catastrophic loss of power which meant the helicopter suddenly dropped into the sea without any opportunity to make a controlled landing.’’

Industry body Oil & Gas UK has arranged a meeting of operators and major contractors tomorrow to discuss ways of minimising the impact of the suspension on the offshore workforce.

Scotland’s Finance Secretary John Swinney said he has been closely liaising with trade unions representatives about the safety of the helicopters.

Mr Swinney said of the grounding of Super Pumas: “We do not anticipate that this temporary suspension will have any immediate impact on the production of oil and gas in the North Sea, but we will continue to monitor this situation closely.

“My thoughts are with the families, friends and colleagues of those who lost their lives and I hope those who were injured make a good recovery.”

A statement from Super Puma manufacturers Eurocopter said: “Eurocopter is supporting CHC and relevant authorities with their investigations.”

There have been five North Sea incidents involving Super Pumas since 2009. In April that year an AS332 L2, this time operated by Bond Offshore Helicopter, went down north east of Peterhead on its return from a BP Platform, killing all 14 passengers and two crew on board.

Pat Rafferty, Scottish secretary of the Unite union, said: ‘’This is the fifth major incident in the last four years involving Super Puma helicopters in the UK offshore industry and the second resulting in fatalities. It’s unacceptable and it can’t go on.”

Bob Crow, general secretary of offshore union RMT, said: “RMT and Unite have worked with all sectors of the industry to address the concerns of our members and rebuild that confidence. Last night’s events have undone all of that work and we anticipate an outpouring of anger.”

First Minister Alex Salmond paid tribute to the “brave and hard-working” people involved in the rescue effort.

He said: “Our thoughts at this difficult time are with the families, friends and colleagues of those who lost their lives in this tragic incident.”

Tavish Scott, the Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland, said: “The families of those lost must know why this helicopter ditched very suddenly. There have been repeated serious and tragically fatal crashes involving Super Puma helicopters.

“The operators are right to ground the entire fleet. But there are now serious questions about why the Super Puma had been cleared to fly, given its tragic record in recent years.”

The flag above the Town House in Aberdeen – Europe’s oil capital – was being flown at half-mast yesterday as a mark of respect for those who died in the disaster.

Sunday 25 August 2013

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