Veterans Voices

Veterans Voices: Inside the laboratory that brings unidentified soldiers home

Veterans Voices

Oct. 1, 2019 was a special day for the remaining family of the late Radioman 2nd Class Floyd Wells.

“We have peace,” says Darlene Erichsen, the oldest surviving niece of Wells. “And I know that giving us peace, Floyd has peace.”

Floyd Wells was born in Cavalier, North Dakota. He chose a career in the Navy over a college scholarship after he graduated high school. And he was still a young man — 24 years old — when he lost his life in the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“His life got cut short in World War II,” says James P. Wisecup, a retired Navy Vice Admiral. “And here we are today to honor him.”

Fast forward nearly 80 years, and Radioman Wells received his final salute back home in North Dakota.  But such a ceremony would never have happened without the help of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

“This project — we’re in the fifth year,” says Carrie LeGarde, a forensic anthropologist with the DPAA. LeGarde is also the leader of the agency’s project to identify the remains of service members who died aboard the USS Oklahoma in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“The men that died on the USS Oklahoma were disinterred from Hawaii in 2015,” she says. “They were briefly looked at in Hawaii, then they were sent here for analysis.”

That analysis takes place in a laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska. It’s there that a team of anthropologists, doctors, and researchers pore over remains that were long ago buried at the Punchbowl National Cemetery in Hawaii.

“We’re looking at them to see which bones we might be able to put together,” LeGarde explains. “A lot of times that’s looking at the left and the right arm. Do these bones look like they belong to the same person?”

But a certain set of remains didn’t match any missing people from the USS Oklahoma — so the scope of the analysis was widened until a DNA match was made, and in June of 2019, Radioman Floyd Wells was identified.

His surviving family members were stunned.

“It was such a surprise that it was hard to believe,” Wells’s niece Erichsen says.

For Carrie LeGarde and her team at the DPAA, it’s hard to beat the moment a match is made.

“We don’t get a lot of communication with family members, but when we do, it can be really emotional,” she says. “It’s exciting to be able to give them some answers about their missing loved ones.”

And for the rest of us: a chance to finally send a hero to his final rest — in the place where he belongs.

“To be able to find out what happened and tell their story,” says retired Vice Admiral Wisecup. “That’s the thing.”

“I go away with that, with peace in my heart and thankfulness,” Erichsen says.

As for the team at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency — their work is never complete.

There are still more than 72,000 American soldiers unaccounted for from World War II.

After this story aired on October 30, 2019 KX News received word that another North Dakota man who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor has also been identified. Here’s more on the story of Albert Renner

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