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Thread: DNA expertise welcomed

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    Default DNA expertise welcomed

    Greetings from the Washington, DC area.

    Might a DNA expert advise on the "best potential" for DNA matches between RAF airmen whose remains are recovered and their direct blood relatives? Some genetic connections yield better results than others.

    On 17 May 1945 RAF 355 Sqn Liberator KH250 was shot down during a raid on Port Blair, South Andaman Island, in the Indian Ocean.

    One crewman, Harold Wynne, baled out, was captured, imprisoned, and executed by the Japanese two months later (after Hirohito's surrender radio announcement). The ten others are officially missing, but I rediscovered their long-forgotten communal grave in 2010. The five-year campaign to get the grave exhumed continues - it is contingent upon Indian government permission that has yet to be granted. So, although the permission may never come in this very political world of ours, it would behoove our group to gather DNA evidence now, in anticipation of an eventual exhumation.

    I am in contact with direct kin from each of the ten crewmates; some (shown in red) are obviously excellent DNA testing candidates, but others are weaker...or I would like assurance that they are good candidates.

    Rowland TOTHAM: daughter of Rowland's daughter
    John MCDOWALL: distant relatives (not great, but better than nothing; not defined here)
    Jim DUCKWORTH: son of Jim's sister
    Harold EMERSON: son of Harold's sister
    Tony MORGAN: either his sister (if still alive; she was, but that was 4 years ago), or else either of two daughters of Tony's other sister
    Harry JOHNSON: son
    Hugh CAMPBELL: son of either of Hugh's siblings.
    Ted RUMSEY-WILLIAMS: daughter of Ted's brother
    Les BENFELL: son of Les' sister
    Bob McPHERSON: daughter

    Thanks for any insight you can offer. I should add that any day now a contact at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission should advise us on DNA matters, but I seek additional points of view.

    Regards,

    Matt

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    Hi
    I assume you mean a legal identification.
    Assuming that all are related, then children or siblings or siblings' children should be fine. Mind you however, that YDNA is shared only by male relatives, and mtDNA by female ones. Thus in those few cases when there are male descendants of female siblings, it could make a problem. Still, I think other parts of DNA chain may be a subject of comparison. Please note, that if there are substantial remains, such preliminary identification may help other methods to be put into use, like superposition, etc.

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    Hi, Franek,

    Many thanks for your valuable information. The success of any DNA-gathering effort is contingent upon a) the Indian Ministry of External Affairs granting permission for an exhumation effort, b) finding any remains in a saturated-soil gravesite now inundated by tidal ebb and flow in a marsh (flooded since the 2004 tsunami disaster), c) the successful extraction of usable DNA from remains (IF any remains are recovered at all, after 70 years), and d) a successful match to kin DNA.

    I really never even thought of collecting DNA from the next-of-kin until recently...and in the past couple of years the daughter of Rowland Totham and the sister of Hugh Campbell have passed away. Very strong DNA links. I would not be surprised if the sister of Tony Morgan has also died...I'm awaiting news. So I missed out on these direct links, though Totham's daughter's daughter is alive and well, and Morgan's other sister's two daughters are well.

    We will collect what we can...and hope, hope, hope that a dig can take place. Just to get into the soil...mud, that is...would be the first major victory. And then, IF remains are found, the DNA comparisons might yield positive results. Ultimately, a burial in a war cemetery is the goal.

    I should further explain that the gravesite was once on dry ground slightly above the tidal marsh, but the Boxing Day 2004 earthquake which triggered the tsunami resulted in about a one-meter drop in the land. Then came the tsunami, and ever since then, the grave has been flooded routinely by tidal action.

    I don't know what the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will need to make a positive determination of any crew identities. I imagine they will need a legal identification. There is solid evidence that the grave only contains the remains of a British crew (Liberator KH250, 355 Sqn) -- from evidence provided by the Air Historical Branch (old documents from the 1940s) and from modern investigations and interviews conducted five years ago. However, we have been told that the Indian government is not satisfied that the grave is that of the KH250 casualties (up to 10 missing crewmen), and they will not dig upon a grave where Indians are suspected as being buried. A names plaque, built post-war as part of a permanent grave marker, disappeared before the tsunami hit, possibly in the 1990s. I'm working on tracking down the past landowner (my contacts have already interviewed the current owner) in the needle-in-a-haystack hope that a photo showing names on the plaque will materialize. And local villagers will also be asked for photos. We have a low probability of success...but it is worth the effort because if such a photo can be found, it just might sway the Indian government into accepting that this is, indeed, the burial site of British casualties, not Indians.

    Hope springs eternal...nothing ventured, nothing gained...and there are a few other clichés I can evoke. I think my fingers are permanently crossed, after five long years of waiting for the green light from the Indian officials. We have been warned about dreadfully slow bureaucracy, though. The widow of one of the pilots, Jim Duckworth, is 97 and sharp as a tack. How wonderful it would be if she can be around when an exhumation attempt is made...IF such an attempt becomes a reality.

    Thanks again, Franek,

    Matt

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    Matt,
    You don't mention the MOD's Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC) in your posts. In the UK, they lead on the recovery and identification of missing British service personnel, and the associated liaison with NoK (not the CWGC). Staff at JCCC are very familiar with the use of DNA. May I ask whether you have contacted them and what their opinions are on the subject?
    Rgds and thanks
    Jonny
    In fond memory of Corporal James Oakland AGC (RMP), killed in action in Afghanistan on 22 October 2009. Exemplo Ducemus.

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    Hi, Jonny,

    The less I say about JCCC the better. Actually, they won't be involved again unless there is an exhumation with human remains found. The nephew of casualty Bob McPherson is in contact with the CWGC regarding DNA -- no info received quite yet, but we do expect help -- so we will bypass further direct contact with JCCC completely, until (if it happens) remains are found. Good bleepin' riddance. Sorry for the negativity, but if...you...only...knew...

    The McPherson nephew (Ron Manley) and I tracked down the kin of each of the other men who died in the crash of KH250 -- so JCCC won't have to spend their time and funds on this in the future. (And Ron found the kin of Harold Wynne, who was executed.) It is understandable that JCCC wouldn't even begin to track down next-of-kin unless remains were found. (Because Wynne has a known grave, JCCC would never track down his kin, also understood.)

    Ron and I decided that these families should be offered the chance to learn basic details that were never shared with them by the UK government, plus a wealth of other things I have found through modern research. Not one family turned down this golden opportunity. Several close kin have passed away since then, so we are grateful to have been able to share with them "in the nick of time."

    Cheers,

    Matt
    Last edited by Matt Poole; 8th May 2015 at 00:44.

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    Hi
    Having another look, I think I did some confusion. Yes, in most of your specific cases you shall have a proper DNA identification. More so, they are close relatives, and it is necessary to make a confirmed identification - in case of distant relatives the margin of error increases, and does not allow absolute accuracy.
    Re remains, you can ask around, what survives. Sometimes soil preserves bones, but sometimes it is so aggressive they decompose quickly. It should give you some hints about potential of identification. If skeletons are preserved then there is plenty of other means of identification, given there are records of their measurements, records on injuries, dental records, etc.
    I think it would have been much easier, if identified as American crew, at least initially.

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    Matt, since those are clearly christian graves, would not the local church/diocese at Port Blair have some authority? They could have made some case of moving the remains for better protection without getting the Indian govt involved..

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    Thanks, Franek and Jagan.

    Yes, there may be nothing left, or substantial remains. Only one way to find out: excavate. I believe that enamel in teeth lasts the longest, but the wrong soil conditions will even dissolve enamel.

    Great suggestion, Jagan. For right now, I think the Indian government route must be pursued, but eventually, if the continued lack of permission lasts much longer, then maybe an appeal to the Port Blair area Christian authorities might result in action. Ideally, the families would want a reburial in a war cemetery, but any new, proper burial site would be better than where the grave is situated now -- in a flooded salt marsh. I also understand that some would prefer the "let them lie" approach, though none of the families have expressed this preference.

    Cheers,

    Matt
    Last edited by Matt Poole; 7th May 2015 at 17:07. Reason: typo fixed

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    Matt, not necessarily. There are non-invasive methods of checking, what is down there. Also, you can ask around, about the rate of decomposition, ie. if any old remains were found in the area, or if any exhumations were performed, and with what result. Not a definite answer, but it should give a hint.

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    Thanks again, Franek. The problem is that the grave is on the edge of a salt marsh on private property in a very remote location in the Andaman Islands, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I have been exceedingly fortunate so far to get assistance from folks in Port Blair, the town nearby, but logistics and communication can be very difficult. I might at least enquire as to the nature of the soil, in regard to human remains.

    Cheers,

    Matt

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