Bugler Plays Taps - How to Research your Family MIAs Military Records

How To Research Your Family’s MIA


June 22, 2018


Many families want to research the military records for their family’s MIA (Missing in Action) service member but don’t know if it is possible or where to start. Project Recover has had the privilege of attending the funerals of several repatriated World War II MIAs, including ARM2c Rybarczyk, AOM2C Sharninghouse,  and LT. Punnell.

Locating an MIA is possible, profound, and still statistically rare. Still, it is very possible to learn more about your family’s MIA through their military records. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) is the government agency responsible for the 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. 

First Three 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 Individual Deceased Personnel File (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. Phone numbers are listed below.
  2. Attend DPAA Family Meeting
    Register to attend a DPAA family meeting. DPAA holds eight meetings throughout 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.’
  3. 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

Military Records: Files & Forms

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 records with their corresponding 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 of and organize your information. The following are files and forms that are most informative.

  • Individual Deceased Personnel File (IDPF) – The file may contain documents such as death certificates, 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.
The casket of former WWII MIA pilot, Lt. Punnell, being secured on a caisson at Arlington National Cemetery. Photo: Harry Parker

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

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 military records and 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.

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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 military records including 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 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.

Service Casualty Office Phone Numbers

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 to get military records.

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

More DPAA Links

Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has other helpful links on their website. Some of those links follow.

More Project Recover Links

Project Recover is honored to help bring recognition to those who served and sacrificed and closure to their families. The following are some other articles you may find helpful and interesting as you research your family’s MIA and getting military records.

  • Finding ‘Heaven Can Wait’; Family Shares MIA Research – This Project Recover article reveals the steps that the Kelly Family Research Team took to research the possible location of the downed B-24, Heaven Can Wait. After five years of research, they turned their findings over to Project Recover which located the B-24 in October 2017.

Leave a Reply

  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.

  3. building a family tree and looking for a member who might have died during ww2. Served as a fighter pilot either on the hornet or enterprise and may have been killed at midway last name of Lindsey

  4. I am the son of MIA George C. Miller from the Vietnam War, April 12, 1975. My father ‘s remains along with 23 other passengers also missing from a Air Vietnam Airl9ines C-54 were shot down over Plieku Vietnam on 12 April 1975. I have made several attempts to locate these remains, visit the crash site without success. The DoD has called off the research of these remains two years ago. I have written to your organization in hopes of renewing the search for the missing 23 passengers of this civilian aircraft shot down by North Vietnamese forces. I have all of the records concerning the crash site and that of the missing passengers. Can you assist us with the recovery of their remains? v/r RICHARD L. MILLER, Lt Col, USAF (Ret)

  5. Mr O’Brien Thank you for acknowledging my email–I will await a member of the Family Outreach Team contact. v/r Dick Miller

  6. My uncle was Navigator 2nd Lt. Willard M. Cornelius, 450th BG / 722nd SQ. He was the navigator on a B-24 that went down over Port San Stefano on May 12, 1944 after it collided with another B-24 as a result of heavy flak. All were lost.
    Based on information from your website I have come to believe that 2 of the crew from my uncle’s B-24wound up washing up on shore; Engineer S/Sgt. Nally and Radio Operator S/Sgt. Payne.
    My mother was the last of Willard’s siblings before she passed away 10 years ago. She, her sister and 2 brothers obviously felt a huge void with the loss of their brother and were further burdened by never having the ability to bring Willard home.
    I have always felt hopeful that maybe one day Willard would be found so my mother and the rest of her family would finally have some peace from a successful search for a long lost loved one.

    Thank you all for the work you do.

    1. Hello Sam, we will be contacting you directly via your email to provide additional information on our search of that region in Italy. We were not successful on finding any aircraft debris.
      Blue Skies.

  7. Ive done extensive research on a great uncle of mine MIA during WW2, and have reached out to the army and department of defense, while in high school last year.. what do i do now?

      1. THANK YOU to each and EVERY person providing A N Y information in an attempt to aid ANY family in their search for A N Y information on missing allied service members. .A S I N C E R E T H A N K Y O U !!!!!

  8. Airman Donald Keith Skillicorn. Shot down At Pohnape, Micronesia He was flying a Corsair. Reports have it that he made it to the island. Reported that he was killed by the Japanese.

  9. Glad to have found this organization. My uncle was shot down over the Baltic Sea on October 9, 1943 and never found. Would love to see a recovery attempt even after so long a time.