Janet Clement with a family phot of her uncle Harry (Henry)...

Janet Clement with a family phot of her uncle Harry (Henry) Lawrence Younge dressed in a "zoot" suit on his way to a performance with his swing band, which was taken in Copiague around 1942. Credit: Dana Roebuck

Janet Clement and her family have waited almost 80 years to bring home the remains of her uncle Sgt. Harry Younge, a Copiague native who was among 62 U.S. airmen killed in a Tokyo prison fire at the end of World War II. 

Now, after years of methodical archival work by forensic anthropologists, the effort to bring closure to Clement's family, and dozens of others scattered across the globe, may be nearing fruition.

Kristen Grow, head of the Defense Department's POW/MIA Accounting Agency's (DPAA) Tokyo Prison Fire Project, said Tuesday her team has made “significant progress” in identifying the remains of the airmen, who were disinterred in 2022 from a U.S. military cemetery in the Philippines and brought to her laboratory in Hawaii for examination.

“We want to let [family members] know that we're starting to make progress and that there is hope,” Grow said. “We are doing all that we can with the assemblage that we currently have in the lab. There's a dedicated team that's combing through the background and spending every single day making as much progress as we can.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Sgt. Harry Younge, a native of Copiague, is believed to be among 62 U.S. airmen killed in a Tokyo prison fire nearly 79 years ago at the end of World War II and then buried in a mass grave.
  • In 2022, the remains were disinterred from a U.S. military cemetery in the Philippines, where they had been moved after the war, as part of an effort to help identify the victims.
  • Forensic anthropologists at the Defense Department's POW/MIA Accounting Agency said this week that “significant progress” is being made utilizing advanced DNA techniques.

A deathbed promise

For Clement, a retired elementary school teacher in Richmond, Virginia, the identification of the uncle she never met can't come soon enough.

In 2019, Clement made a deathbed promise to her 96-year-old mother, Elizabeth “Betty” Clement, that she'd help bring home her brother Harry.

“I just wanted one more story that I could tell my mother before she died,” Clement said. “She and my grandmother would constantly wonder what happened to Harry … So, my sister held the phone to my mom's ear and I said, 'I think I can bring him home, mom.' And she died within 20 minutes.”

The challenges, however, in putting a name to the remains of the U.S. servicemen, who were imprisoned after being shot down by the Japanese, are numerous, Grow said.

The badly burned bodies were initially buried in a mass grave, allowing the remains to commingle. And while American anthropologists did their best “to put individuals back together” when they moved the remains to a cemetery in Manila after the war, “they didn't have the scientific methods that we have today,” she said.

Once Grow's team isolates a set of remains, they then attempt to assess the age, sex, ancestry and cause of death for the individual. That information is then compared to dental records and DNA samples, contributed by family members, to place a name with the remains, Grow said.

“We're getting some promising results and are starting to have our DNA technicians make comparisons to the family reference samples we have on file,” said Grow, who declined to discuss the identification of Younge or any specific individual.

Search for answers

Younge, an Amityville High School graduate, was a tail gunner on a B-29 Superfortress when he was shot down April 16, 1945, during a nighttime mission over Kawasaki, Japan. Six members of his crew died while five others, including Younge, were captured and taken to the Tokyo Military Prison.

Group photo of the B-29 crew shows Sgt. Henry L....

Group photo of the B-29 crew shows Sgt. Henry L. “Harry” Younge, of Copiague, standing in the second row on the far right. The photo was taken on March 17, 1945, at a U.S. air base on Guam. Credit: Janet Clement

On May 25 — the 79th anniversary is next week — the U.S. conducted one of the largest air raids of the war against Tokyo. The bombs, records show, ignited a fire that spread to the prison, where all 62 U.S. POWs are believed to have died.

Michael Krehl, a retired masonry contractor from Florida, who lived in Centerport in the early 1980s, said his maternal grandfather, Sgt. Leonard McNeil, perished in the blaze and likely suffered an excruciating death from asphyxiation, phosphorus, or napalm burns or falling debris.

“It's a frightening visualization I'll have to process for the rest of my life,” said Krehl, whose yearslong effort to locate McNeil was the impetus for the DPAA disinterring the remains of the missing airmen. 

Under DPAA’s rules for disinterring unidentified remains from a common grave, Krehl had to get 60% of the relatives of all 62 victims of the prison fire to submit DNA samples for possible matches.

In 2018, Krehl set up a Facebook page dedicated to the repatriation. Three years later, the DPAA said it had enough samples to disinter the remains from Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, where the airmen were listed as “unknown.”

While Krehl is “confident” Grow's team will be able to place his grandfather at the prison, he's concerned that authorities failed to remove all of the remains from the mass grave in Tokyo, noting that some body parts are still unaccounted for. He wants the DPAA to re-excavate the site of the former prison, which is near an elementary school and Olympic-sized soccer field in Tokyo.

“Somewhere on that site, which is very accessible, there might still be some more guys left,” he said.

Paul Schwimmer, a registered land surveyor from Michigan working with the families of the victims, said he visited the site last year to determine if American remains were present. His field testing indicated cotton, similar to what was available during the war, but he was unable to get a hit on human remains.

Until DNA tests are complete, Grow said, the department won't know if there are still remains at the site.

Clement, who submitted an oral swab of her DNA that was entered into the department's Family Reference Database, plans to travel to Billings, Montana, on Saturday, where DPAA is hosting a meeting with the loved ones of those lost in the fire.

She plans to seek answers about her uncle, whose remains, she believed for so many years, were untraceable.

“We thought there were no remains and that's very common with this group,” Clement said. “A persistent theme about everyone who attends these meetings is they feel an obligation to find out what happened.”

Grow agreed and said it's critical to provide closure to family members who've waited far too long for answers.

“It's deeply personal to those families and to the scientists that are working in this lab,” she said, “that we keep the promise that was made to our service members and to their families that we'd continue to look for them. And that we would bring them home no matter how long it takes.”

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