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Bellevue, Neb. – Nearly 77 years after repeated torpedo strikes tore into the USS Oklahoma, killing hundreds of sailors and Marines, Carrie Brown leaned over the remains of a serviceman laid out on a table in her lab and was surprised the bones still smelled of burning oil from that horrific day at Pearl Harbor.

It was a visceral reminder of the catastrophic attack that pulled the United States into World War II, and it added an intimacy to the painstaking work Brown and hundreds of others are now doing to greatly increase the number of lost American servicemen who have been identified.

It’s a monumental mission that combines science, history and intuition, and it’s one Brown and her colleagues have recently been completing at ramped-up speed, with identifications expected to reach 200 annually, more than triple the figures from recent years.

“There are families still carrying the torch,” said Brown, a forensic anthropologist with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s lab near Omaha, Nebraska. “It’s just as important now as it was 77 years ago.”

Officials believe remains of nearly half of the 83,000 unidentified service members killed in World War II and more recent wars could be identified and returned to relatives. The modern effort to identify remains started in 1973 and was primarily based in Hawaii until a second lab was opened in 2012 at Offutt Air Force Base in the Omaha suburb of Bellevue.

With an intensified push, the identifications climbed from 59 in 2013 to 183 last year and at least 200 and possibly a few more this year.

The increase has led to a surge of long-delayed memorial services and burials across the country as families and entire communities turn out to honor those killed.

Joani McGinnis, of Shenandoah, Iowa, said her family is planning a service Friday at the national cemetery in Omaha now that they have finally learned what happened to her uncle, Sgt. Melvin. C. Anderson.

Piecing together bits of history and DNA, the Omaha lab confirmed that remains found in 1946 in Germany were Anderson’s and that he died when his tank was hit in the rugged Hurtgen Forest during a battle that lasted for months and left tens of thousands of Americans killed and wounded.

Besides returning the remains, McGinnis said the agency gave her a thick file with details about how he died and how researchers unraveled the mystery.

“I wish my mom and my grandma were here to know all this information,” said McGinnis, who recalled a framed picture of Anderson that hung in her grandmother’s home in Omaha. “My grandmother was very sad about it.”

The soaring number of identifications followed years of complaints about a cumbersome process, typically resulting in about 60 completed cases annually. Congress responded by setting a goal of 200 identifications annually, and it supported a reorganization and increased funding that saw spending climb from $80.8 million in the 2010 fiscal year to $143.9 million in 2018.

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