When the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S.S. Oklahoma 78 years ago, nearly 400 of the victims were unidentifiable. In the decades since, thousands more service men and women have gone unaccounted for as "Missing in Action" or "Prisoners of War" and whose bodies have not been laid to rest or returned to their families.
This month, a group of more than 150 families from the region recently gathered in Omaha to hope to learn more about the ongoing process of identifying their parents, siblings, spouses and extended families who are among the more than 82,000 individuals that remain unidentified around the world.
The gathering came one day after the director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), Kelly McKeague, visited the UNO campus to see the work being done by faculty and students at UNO through a years-long partnership with their lab located at Offutt Air Force Base.
Omaha's ABC affiliate, KETV, visited the UNO
campus for Director Kelly McKeague's visit
The project, called CoRA, or Comingled Remains Analytics Ecosystem, is led by Sachin Pawaskar, a professor of practice in the College of Information Science and Technology, and students like Ryan Ernst, a recent computer science graduate from Columbus, Neb.
"The DPAA is finding that it is better to bring in computational scientists, mathematical scientists such as Ryan, and creating algorithms that help in the identification process," Pawaskar explains.
As part of his visit, McKeague was able to hear from and ask questions about Pawaskar and Ernst's project, which has turned weeks’ worth of work into a process that could be accomplished in mere hours. Ultimately, he said, the work being done at UNO was transformational, helping identify 207 of the 388 victims of the U.S.S. Oklahoma so far.
"It's an incredible set of closure from the standpoint that these families for decades have not only dealt with the grief of their loves ones lost in World War II but there is an uncertainty to it also. They know that their loved one died and made the supreme sacrifice to this nation but not knowing for sure how or where."
McKeague says the project has already moved beyond its initial task of identifying victims of the Pearl Harbor attacks and has been used to help identify POWs in the Philippines and service members from the Korean War sent to the United States by North Korea.
Ernst, now an alumni, says the potential isn't just in how many sites it can be applied to - but how thorough and quickly the identifications can be made. He has spent the past two years moving the system's user interface from an excel spreadsheet format to one complete with dynamic visuals - but that is just the beginning.
"People learn very visually and a lot of what the anthropologists do is visual so having a visual component to the system makes a lot of sense. My piece is a visualization graph that will give them the possible pairs for a specific bone. And then, within that, we are going into depth to see the pairs of the pairs and the pairs of the pairs of the pairs just to give them a sense of how that bone relates to all the other bones. Again that's just the first stepping stone."
About the University of Nebraska at Omaha
Located in one of America’s best cities to live, work and learn, the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) is Nebraska’s premier metropolitan university. With more than 15,000 students enrolled in 200-plus programs of study, UNO is recognized nationally for its online education, graduate education, military friendliness and community engagement efforts. Founded in 1908, UNO has served learners of all backgrounds for more than 100 years and is dedicated to another century of excellence both in the classroom and in the community.