After more than 44 years, Capt. Douglas Ferguson finally got to come home.
Ferguson, a 24-year-old U.S. Air Force co-pilot, died in December 1969 when his plane was struck by anti-aircraft fire and exploded over Laos.
For decades, the young first lieutenant’s remains were never found.
But in 2014, Penny Minturn, a forensics bioarchaeologist at Offutt Air Force Base, found some important clues that would help bring closure for Ferguson’s family in Washington state.
Minturn talked about her work during the Friday morning meeting of the Fremont Cosmopolitan Club 100.
She later spoke at Fremont High School.
Minturn works for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), which strives to locate and identify the remains of missing military personnel from the Gulf War back to 1940, and return them to their families.
The agency began because of the POW-MIA movement founded by families and veterans of the Vietnam War — so a lot of time has been spent working in Southeast Asia and many missing personnel from that area have been returned.
But many more personnel have not been found.
Currently, more than 73,000 World War II personnel are missing around the world. There are almost 8,000 Korean War and 1,600 Vietnam War personnel missing in Southeast Asia.
To help find the missing, the DPAA has a main laboratory office in Honolulu and opened a satellite lab at Offutt in 2013.
Workers travel throughout the world, searching for downed service personnel.
Minturn, who has helped recover remains for at least 23 individuals, talked about the work that goes in finding just one person.
It’s a complicated job, especially since many have been missing for years.
Workers do background research, poring over personnel files. That can be tough since many military files were lost in a fire in St. Louis, Mo., in 1973.
Researchers study maps and lists of military people reported missing on certain days. They look at medical records and X-rays.
People can be individuated by the shape and size of clavicle (collar bone) and even the bumps on it. It’s an excellent tool for Korean War personnel, almost all of whom had tuberculosis X-rays before they left.
Historians also talk to witnesses, local residents and veterans to gather information.
Minturn talked about the specific case involving an aircraft with Ferguson and another man missing in Laos. An archeologist identified for areas of priority. Two areas were excavated, but the plane wasn’t found.
During the next year, Minturn did extensive research and found a man who’d written an article about the area and had photos.
“That was incredibly difficult to find,” she said.
Based on her findings, Minturn singled out one site. She and others began digging. There, she found red and white material and then saw the star – of an American flag.
“You should have seen my face when I realized it was a flag,” she said. “It was very exciting.”
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The flag was part of a blood chit, a notice carried by military survivors with a message in several languages, seeking help and promising a reward.
Minturn then found two dog tags in excellent shape along with remains. Back at the lab, another archeologist analyzed the findings.
Minturn said bones found at a site can help tell the age, sex and race of the person.
“A lot of times we can’t tell much, but we do as much as we can,” she said.
DNA extracted from a bone can help in identification, but only if there is a family reference sample. Dental records are used, too.
In the Ferguson case, researchers got the information they needed to identify the man, whose remains were returned to his home in Lakewood, Wash.
“Everything I read about him sounds like he was a wonderful, funny, outgoing guy,” said Minturn, who met his cousin and nephew.
Ferguson’s obituary talked about his earning a Silver Star, just nine days before he died. The Silver Star citation said that despite adverse weather and intensive hostile ground fire, Ferguson successfully prevented the capture and possible death of two downed airmen, both of whom were rescued.
Ferguson was buried with full military honors in a plot just a few feet from where his parents are buried.
Minturn said she still wants to return to Laos to search for the pilot, Fielding Featherston.
She also said the DPAA is working at Offutt on a disinterment project for men lost on the USS Oklahoma, which was sunk in the Pearl Harbor attack. Thirty-five crew were saved. Remains were buried in graves in a Honolulu cemetery.
The DPAA told the U.S. Navy that it could use DNA to identify the men and return them to their families. The first casket was disinterred in 2003. In that single casket, 95 different mitochondrial DNA sequences were found.
“That means there were 95 different people in that casket,” she said. “There were 429 men missing on the boat, 35 survived. In these graves, there should be about 387. We get 95 in one casket, that means we have a quarter of everybody we’re looking for is in that one casket.”
The DPAA did something similar to remains returned in 208 boxes by the North Koreans. As of today, DPAA is up to 587 individuals and has identified 170 military personnel.
Minturn said 5,000 DNA samples from men on the USS Oklahoma have been sent to a lab in Washington, D.C. Thus far, they’ve identified 39 people. They’re also looking for DNA family reference samples for men on the USS Oklahoma.
They have about 30 percent of family DNA samples.
Minturn also said that on Thursday, the remains of 1st Lt. Ben B. Barnes were released to his family and a service is set for Oct. 15 in Miller, S.D.
Barnes, a pilot, was killed in World War II after his single seat aircraft encountered enemy aircraft, northeast of Berlin, in December 1944.
Minturn found Barnes’ remains in Germany on a single mission — after 70 years.
“He was only 24,” she said.
Minturn said that between Hawaii and Offutt, the DPAA has eight archeologists, 25 to 30 anthropologists and many students who help. She, whose dad fought in World War II and brother served in Vietnam, goes to sites with a military team.
“That has been my greatest joy in this job is to be able to work with the young men and women that serve us today,” she said. “They are awesome people.”