DPAA teams perform in an effort to bring closure

| December 15, 2016 | 0 Comments

Story and photos by Staff Sgt. Roy Woo
Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Adam Tiffany, a team sergeant with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), watches as a UH-60 Black Hawk operated by the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB) delivers excavated dirt during a DPAA recovery mission on the island of Oahu, August 17, 2016. The mission of DPAA is to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and the nation. (U.S. Army Photo by Staff Sgt. Roy C. Woo)

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Adam Tiffany, a team sergeant with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), watches as a UH-60 Black Hawk operated by the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB) delivers excavated dirt during a DPAA recovery mission on the island of Oahu, August 17, 2016. The mission of DPAA is to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and the nation.

In the early morning hours of June 23, 1945, three Navy pilots left Naval Air Station Barbers Point, Hawaii, as part of an F6F-3 night familiarization flight.

The three aircrafts were in formation as they followed the coastline, until the group inadvertently separated as the pilots attempted to avoid a light overcast.

Only two out of the three pilots returned to the air station that day.

Fast forward 71 years, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, conducted a recovery mission for the third aircraft that never returned. This particular crash site, located in the Ko’olau Mountain range on the northeast side of Oahu, is considered one of the most challenging missions to date for the agency.

Due to strict environmental policy concerns and the elevation of the crash site, the decision was made to have two teams with nine personnel each to support the recovery. One team would operate in the Ko’olau Mountain as the dig team, and the other would operate the screening stations located near Wheeler Army Airfield.

With the operational support of the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB), 25th Infantry Division, DPAA was able to conduct the sling-load operation.

The excavation team, called the “mountain team,” was inserted into the crash site by a jungle-penetrator – a piece of equipment used in rescue operations to hoist personnel to safety, which was mounted on a UH-60 Black Hawk.

After insertion, teams worked four days each week on-site through rainstorms and harsh conditions, such as dense vegetation, steep inclines, extremely wet terrain and thick mud.

The progress of the team was best explained by DPAA archaeologist and mountain team recovery leader, Kimberly Maeyama.

“From an excavation perspective, we averaged approximately one, two-by-two meter excavation units every other day, four days a week, for eight weeks,” said Maeyama.

The mountain team was challenged with moving buckets of dirt over a distance more than 100 meters with environmental obstacles along the way.

With safety and efficiency in mind, the excavation team set up pulleys and climbing ropes to transfer buckets from the dig site to the landing zone for packaging and pick-up.

U.S. Army Staff Sergeants Paepae Tevaseu (right) and Joe Gonzales, both recovery sergeants with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), prepare for sling-load operations to supply a recovery team in a remote location during a DPAA recovery mission on the island of Oahu, August 16, 2016. The mission of DPAA is to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and the nation. (U.S. Army Photo by Staff Sgt. Roy C. Woo)

U.S. Army Staff Sergeants Paepae Tevaseu (right) and Joe Gonzales, both recovery sergeants with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), prepare for sling-load operations to supply a recovery team in a remote location during a DPAA recovery mission on the island of Oahu, August 16, 2016. The mission of DPAA is to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and the nation.

The team was successful in creating a bucket line that was able to transfer three buckets at a time using a sliding system and personnel in-between transfer points to move buckets from one pulley system to another.

Once the buckets of dirt arrived at the landing zone, personnel poured the buckets into bundles and prepared them for sling-load operations.

“We estimated daily (the amount of dirt coming in),” said Capt. David Lochart, excavation team leader. “If we got two sling loads out in the morning and in the afternoon, we could move 12,000 to 14,000 pounds of dirt.”

Upon arriving to the mountain site, the 25th CAB would hover over the landing zone while personnel of the mountain team would hook the sling-load to the long lines that were attached to the Black Hawk.

The sling-load was carried 20 minutes to the screening site where the “screen team” prepared to receive the bundled dirt. Each sling-load of eight to 14 bundles, weighing approximately 3 to 4,500 pounds, was transferred to the drying stations to be screened.

Recovery team members of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) screen excavated dirt during a DPAA recovery mission on the island of Oahu, August 18, 2016. The mission of DPAA is to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and the nation. (U.S. Army Photo by Staff Sgt. Roy C. Woo)

Recovery team members of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) screen excavated dirt during a DPAA recovery mission on the island of Oahu, August 18, 2016. The mission of DPAA is to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and the nation.

The hardest condition for the screen team was the unpredictable weather and the efforts to dry the excavated dirt as the amount of incoming dirt was greater than the dirt screened. However, the team’s effort to work as quickly as possible did not mean going through the dirt at the screens without keeping a keen eye for possible evidence including pieces of bone.

“The bundles we received were mud,” said Megan Ingvoldstad, DPAA archaeologist and screen team recovery leader. “We needed to dry it out as quickly as possible so that we could visualize its contents. We didn’t want to mistake any sort of small bone as fragment and rock.”

“We processed about 250,000 pounds of excavated dirt,” said Capt. Joseph Lewandowski, screen team leader. “It’s a lot of dirt we have to go through looking for the most miniscule, tiny items we can find in order to complete the identification, as well as completing the process of returning whatever we can find to the family.”

Both teams worked through their own hardship and challenges, with different objectives but to achieve a common goal, fulfilling our nation’s promise.

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