Four Questions for Robert Laplander of Doughboy MIA
"A man is only missing if he is forgotten. We won't let them be forgotten"
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, U.S. World War One Centennial Commission
Robert J. Laplander is an author, military historian, musician, and the world's leading authority on the 'Lost Battalion' of the 77th Division during WW1. He has written several books about the Lost Battalion, and currently curates the "Doughboy MIA" section of the WW1 Centennial Commission web site.
Tell us about the Doughboy MIA project. What is it, actually?
Doughboy MIA is a project sponsored by the USWW1CC. There is no complete and accurate record of the US Missing In Action from WW1, so our ultimate goal is to not only create one, but also to disseminate what happened to them and collect what information we can on each. While the devastating fire at the National Personnel Records Center in 1973 destroyed the majority of information on the Doughboys, there is still plenty of information out there to be had, though it is scattered. Part of what we do is gather those bits together to try and recreate the records of these men.
In the end, we hope to have the story of each man who went MIA on the battlefield, or was lost or buried at sea. Our motto is A Man Is Only Missing If He Is Forgotten.
The other part of what we do is search for means to insure that no possible identification of a set of remains was missed, or that the possibility of recovery is not passed up when there is a chance of success. Currently we are searching for a batch of missing paperwork concerning the remains buried as 'Unknown' in Europe. Once we have this paperwork, it is possible to begin combing through it for mis-identifications and paperwork errors - known as 'errors in coding'. We believe that once that paperwork has been located and examined, there is at least one - and possibly more - graves marked as Unknown that we can identify the remains in. We also believe that it will help us in determining whether several possible recovery expeditions of targeted individuals stand any possibility of success, as we think they might.
How did you get started with looking for America's MIA soldiers?
I have focused historical expertise on the famous 'Lost Battalion' of the US 77th Division in WW1. During my 20 years research into the event, while I was writing my book on it, we did some battlefield archeology at the site of the action. A French battlefield digger working at the site later on turned up a dog tag for one of the Lost Battalion MIA's, which eventually was turned over to me. I started to research the man and not only discovered that we might be able to identify his grave, but that there was this whole forgotten element of the AEF out there. Once the files were closed in 1934 and control of the cemeteries overseas handed over to the ABMC, the question of the missing was put to rest. However, in researching this Lost Battalion man, I discovered that if I can locate the paperwork for the Unknowns buried in France, that it is a racing certainty that we can determine which grave he's in. The process of learning the paper trail and the history of the Unknowns, the MIA's and the way that Graves Registration handled it all, has taken almost 12 years now. We've gotten into this on an almost esoteric level and examined records that no one has seen in 70 or 80 years in some cases. But we're still looking for the final piece - those records of the Unknowns buried overseas. We find that stuff; we've golden.
You have made some progress so far. What have you discovered?
We have identified one man whose grave can almost certainly be located, once the correct paperwork is found, and at least three others who we believe are still out on the battlefield and may yet be recovered using solid research and modern technological methods (ground penetrating radar, satellite locating technologies, metal detectors). There are also at least two flyers' cases we are examining; there were far fewer MIA flyers and that makes the job far easier to pinpoint who the remains may belong to, especially with the detailed research that has been done into aviator casualties over the last 10 - 15 years. We have also identified a 'double' entry of a name on the accepted record of casualties of the ABMC - a man who is entered on the rolls of the missing twice, though the Walls of the Missing in France only has him on once (thank God). This report is being prepared for submission to the ABMC now.
And all this is just the start. There are bound to be more once we are able to dig deeper into the files of the missing. But that will take funding for the project, which we currently do not have, and most especially the missing paperwork we need.
Why is this important work? Why is it important to remember these military members -- through your work, or through the preservation work of the 100 CITIES/100 MEMORIALS program, or through the creation of the new National World War I Memorial in Washington DC?
Doughboy MIA come in. Just because it happened 100 years ago now doesn't mean we should give up. Not when the possibility still exists, which it does. Remember: A Man Is Only Missing If He Is Forgotten. We won't let them be forgotten.No man or woman's sacrifice in the cause of freedom should ever be forgotten, no matter how much time has passed or whether there are living memories of them or not. These people went Over There and lost their lives, then were largely lost to history. They have remained in a shadowy area between those who came back and those who did not and remained in France. True, they are there (or at sea), but their stories are open-ended - for their families closure was denied, and all that remained for them was a name on a wall. While that was better than nothing at all, today even the names are largely forgotten. As a country we go to great lengths to recover our dead. The DPAA sends teams out to work over recoveries from WW2 on up to today - but WW1 is outside of their parameters. They simply don't have the funding, personnel or the expertise in the era to do the work. That's where we at