21 gun salute for Ora H. Sharninghouse, Jr. found by Project Recover and BentProp. Learn to research your familys mia. Photo by Harry Parker Photography

How To Research Your Family’s MIA

The life and legacy of your family’s MIA reverberate through the generations. The MIA father, son, uncle, or cousin, whether known in person or lore,  shapes their families nearly a century later.  While the vast majority of MIAs are men, there are daughters lost as well. They are women who served as pilots, Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASP),  Red Cross nurses, and flight nurses.

As locating World War II MIAs makes national headlines, more families want to know if they can locate their family’s MIA. BentProp has recently had the privilege of attending funerals for three WWII sailors, ARM2c Rybarczyk, AOM2C Sharninghouse,  and Lt. Punnell, all formerly listed at MIA. Locating an MIA is possible, profound, and still statistically rare.

It is, however, very possible to learn more about your family’s MIA. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) is the government agency responsible for recovery, identification, and repatriation of MIAs and POWs from past wars and conflicts. While they encourage interested families to take action, they caution against false hope.

“Our mission incorporates 82,000 who have not been accounted for. Nearly early 75% of those are lost in the Indo-Pacfic.  About 41,000 are assumed to be lost at sea. Approximately 34,000 of those are considered recoverable. The rest are deep water losses and not recoverable,” according to Chuck Prichard of the DPAA. 

Files & Forms: What to Look For

Initially, families will want to fill in all the basic information about their family’s MIA and the circumstances of their death, such as:

  • Aircraft type, name, and serial number (or other vehicle/vessel if applicable)
  • Crew members names, rank, position
  • Mission reports / details
  • Crash and/or eyewitness reports
  • Location / Geographic details

Military acronyms can be confusing in the routine of modern life. Going back in history 50 or 75 years can be even more complicated. It’s important to keep track and organize your information. Following are the file and forms that are most informative.

  • Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF) – The file may contain documents such as death certificate, letters, and perhaps even personal effects.
  • Missing Aircraft Crew Report (MACR) – This report may include details of the crew, aircraft, mission, eye-witness reports, and maps. The MACR of a crash with many affiliated MIAs may be filed in the pilot’s IDPF.
  • Aircraft Accident Report (AAR) – This report may contain more information about the accident.

DPAA: First 3 Steps

  1. Call Service Casualty Office
    Call the relevant Service Casualty Office for your family’s MIA.  They are friendly, engaging, and it is their job to work with families around the death of a loved one. Every branch of service has one. When you call, they will first determine how you are related to the MIA. After that, you are free to request the IDPF for your family’s MIA. Though it was once classified information, the IDPF now can be released to a designated family member. The IDPF may contain information including Missing Aircraft Crew Report (MACR), Aircraft Accident Report (AAR), death certificate, letters,  maps, eye-witness reports,  and perhaps even personal effects.
  2. Submit a DNA sample
    There is a sense of urgency around collecting DNA samples. Family DNA samples are extremely valuable in helping the DPAA identify remains, and time is running out. Many MIAs died fatherless, and generations from WWII and the Korean War are quickly dying out. The DPAA keeps a DNA sample on file so they can identify as many MIA/POW remains as efficiently as possible. The larger their database of DNA samples, the more remains they can identify. Submitting a DNA sample involves simply swabbing the inside of one’s cheek and is a painless procedure. While cheeks swabs are preferred, it is also possible to submit a DNA sample from an MIA’s personal effects, for instance from the envelope of a letter your MIA sent home or perhaps his service cover (hat),  The DPAA has compiled an exhaustive page on DNA FAQ’s
  3. Attend DPAA Family Meeting
    Register to attend a DPAA family meeting. They hold eight through the year in major metropolitan areas. The family meeting provides general information for the community as well as information for individual needs. If you’re researching your family’s MIA, you can plan for a one-to-one meeting with a government official at the family meeting. Ask your Service Casualty Office for more information. Generally, the meetings have 150-200 attendees with approximately 30 government officials present. They talk about what is happening regarding MIA/POW accounting, and what you can do. You may also get a chance to hear from families who have been through the process. Dennis Kelvie, the nephew of a recently repatriated WII pilot,  spoke at a DPAA family meeting to share his experience with other families and encourage them to ‘not give up hope.’
Sailors loading former WWII MIA casket onto caisson at Arlington National Cemetery - Learn to Claim Your family's MIA - Photo by Harry Parker Photography.com

The casket of former WWII MIA pilot, Lt. Punnell, being secured on a caisson at Arlington National Cemetery.

Will You Find Your Family’s MIA?

It is possible to locate an MIA — and it is a long shot. The first step is to contact your Service Casualty Office. They will track down any reports associated with the name of the service member.  It can take months to track down associated reports. The size of the file you ultimately receive varies.

As you learn more about your family’s MIA, the Service Casualty Office will determine if your family’s MIA falls into the group of 34,000 MIAs whose remains are potentially recoverable.  If so, then they may talk to you about anticipated missions, if any, planned for the relevant area. There is a myriad of details that must dovetail to make a mission possible, including budget, geography, weather, and current projects. Again, the DPAA cautions against false hope.

Forensic Archaeology Takes Time

Regardless of the circumstances, this process takes time. It may take months to receive the IDPF. Accounting for your family’s MIA typically takes years to accomplish, if it is possible at all. The Kelly family spent 5 years researching and collaborating before Project Recover (of which BentProp is a founding member) located the B-24 submerged under 213 feet of water.  It will take more time to see if DPAA is willing and/or able to embark on the process of recovery, identification, and repatriation of the remains.

After you’ve done all you can do, be prepared to wait. The science of locating, recovering, and identifying human remains from conflicts around the world is time and labor intensive — and there are many. Recently, for example, the remains of 388 sailors who died aboard the USS Oklahoma in WWII were exhumed. The DPAA is involved in the process of piecing together skeletal remains for identification.

The medical examiner makes a positive identification based on a multitude of factors, not just one. Both the historical evidence, such as witness reports, and all the available material evidence, such as dental records, medical background, and uniform, must align.

Call Your Service Casualty Office

If your family has a loved one who is listed as Missing In Action, call the appropriate Service Casualty Office. They will guide you through the first steps.

U.S. Air Force: (800) 531-5501 – The Air Force was formed in 1947 so WWII servicemen in the Army Air Corps are handled by the U.S. Army Casualty Office.
U.S. Army: (800) 892-2490
U.S. Marine Corps: (800) 847-1597
U.S. Navy: (800) 443-9298
State Department: (202) 485-6106

BentProp and the entire Project Recover team are honored to help bring recognition to those who served and sacrificed and closure to their families.

Read more about Researching Your Family’s MIA:

Read posts about MIAs Project Recover has helped repatriate:

Read posts about other WWII Aircrafts Project Recover has located:

Read posts related to WWII Vessels Project Recover has located:

Comments 4

  1. This is a well researched and written article. Bentprop realizes how many of us are still looking for details about our relative’s death and provides a roadmap to find out more. I will confirm that the IDPF is the best door opener for detailed information specific to the missing serviceman’s initial disposition and it is a springboard to other sources and locations of their service history.

  2. This is a great article. In 2005, I found a picture of my grandfather’s plane on the internet. Using that as a starting point I started researching him and his final mission. It took five years of dedicated research to locate the exact site where he went down. Ultimately, a combination of the IDPF and interviews with people who were there or had relatives there helped confirm the location (which differed from the MACR.) We continue our research after thirteen years using aerial reconnaissance photos of the area from the time. We have found some small aircraft parts from where he was lost. New doors are opened frequently that help us learn more. Had I seen an article like this in 2005 when I started the research, many months (possibly years), would have been saved trying to find where he went down. Thanks for the information.

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