The chaos of Kokoda took not only their lives but their names as well.
Now a new DNA technique developed at Queensland University of Technology is helping identify Australia’s missing WWII diggers, bringing hope of answers to those they left behind.
As with countless other theatres of war, the fate of soldiers who disappeared in Papua New Guinea was not always clearly known by their grieving relatives.
They were simply listed as missing and all anyone could say for certain was they weren’t ever coming home.
In total, 25,000 Australians from all conflicts have no known grave.
But a team of researchers from QUT, including two PhD students, decided our missing diggers deserved better.
So they developed a test that takes us closer to matching relatives’ DNA with samples recovered from bone fragments, even after 75 years exposure to the elements.
Forensic biologist and QUT visiting fellow Kristy Wright says identifying soldiers killed at historic battle sites is notoriously difficult.
“This is particularly the case in the Asia-Pacific area, where in 95 to 99 per cent of cases we have only partial remains,” she says.
“We often have no other forensic evidence to work from, and limited artefacts such as badges or identity tags that might provide some clues.”
In PNG investigators can’t even be sure whether bones belong to Australians, Japanese, or Papua New Guineans caught up in the fighting.
Using the latest DNA techniques, however, combined with data analysis, PhD students Andrew Ghaiyed and Kyle James found a way to reliably determine the nationality of different sets of remains.
It means those belonging to Japanese soldiers can now be returned to Japan while those belonging to Australian soldiers can be more easily matched.
“It has been a really rewarding project to work on,” Mr Ghaiyed says.
The next step in their research will apply a similar approach seeking reliable matches with living descendants.
“Being able to see the outcomes and work towards an achievable goal has been great,” says Mr James.
“It’s important that there is an accurate statistical method that interprets the information and gives confidence in the results. It’s part of being able to honour soldiers and give families closure.”
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