JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR - HICKAM (HawaiiNewsNow) - 74 thousand U.S. servicemembers from World War II are still unaccounted for. 8,000 are M.I.A. from the Korean war and another 1,600 from Vietnam.
Despite those daunting numbers and the decades that have passed, the grueling work continues to find and recover their remains. On Friday, they were half-way there.
The ceremony in hangar 35 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam doesn't get a lot of media attention these days, but three or four times a year, after months - often years - of searching in far off lands, the remains of unknown American servicemembers receive full military honors before being accompanied to the nearby Central Identification Laboratory for analysis.
"We are Americans. We care for our fellow man", says Korean war and Vietnam war vet, Nick Nishimoto. He's seen many flag-draped transfer cases pass by in the last 15 years since he's been coming to these ceremonies. Nishimoto spent almost three years as a P.O.W. in Korea.
He describes what life was like as a prisoner of war. "If I put you people through it, I'd say 75% would not survive." The 82 year old from Hilo hopes, one day, his long-lost comrade will be found and identified. Not a day goes by that he doesn't think of him.
It's the same for Tommy Tanaka. "I miss them, too."
The 83 year old Korean war vet and Purple Heart recipient from Kaimuki says, "I left a lot of my buddies back there. I don't know when they're going to come back home. I don't know if they found them."
It's not for lack of trying. Small recovery teams - made up of investigators, a photographer, linguist, medic, and explosives tech - fan out in some of the most adverse conditions, in some of the most remote areas of Asia, Southeast Asia, and Europe. Teammembers say the work is demanding but rewarding.
"It's very noble, very honorable. It just feels good to bring your comrades back and bring some kind of closure to their family," says Sgt. First Class Ronaldo Alpuerto, a recovery team sergeant.
Right now, three recovery teams are searching several areas in Laos, including a helicopter crash site and an aircraft crash site, to find 16 Americans who have been missing since the Vietnam war.
It may take years, but the mission is to keep trying … until they are home.