The Defense Department laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base responsible for the identification of hundreds of missing soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines from past wars will be moved in the next few years — quite possibly to a location outside the Offutt fence line.
“When we moved into this space, we always knew we would have to move again,” said Franklin Damann, the laboratory director. “We are going to have to find a new location. The process has begun. It could be on base, or beyond.”
One of the sites under consideration, according to congressional and military sources, is near the Nebraska National Guard’s Bellevue Readiness Center, which is slated to open in late 2021 on South 25th Street north of Capehart Road, overlooking the Willow Lakes Golf Course.
The 27,000-square-foot lab officially opened in June 2013 in Offutt’s Building D, the historic Glenn L. Martin Bomber Plant where workers from Nebraska and Iowa built B-26 and B-29 bombers during World War II. The Enola Gay, the B-29 aircraft that flew over Hiroshima, Japan, and dropped the atomic bomb that heralded the end of the war, was built there.
It’s not yet clear when the lab, which is part of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, will relocate. Congress has not yet appropriated money for the new facility.
“There’s no timeline,” said Carrie Brown, an anthropologist who is the co-manager of the Offutt lab. “I don’t think anyone knows.”
As for the location, she added, “There are several ideas, but there’s nothing in stone.”
Damann mentioned the move while conducting a tour of the lab for a bipartisan congressional delegation led by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., whose 1st Congressional District includes Offutt. The others were Rep. Jim Baird, R-Ind.; Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill.; and Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn. Also with the group was Ted Carter, the retired Navy vice admiral recently named president of the University of Nebraska.
The group also met Monday with leaders at U.S. Strategic Command, and Tuesday morning was given a classified briefing aboard an Offutt-based E-4B jet equipped to carry on nuclear command and control from the sky in the event of a nuclear war.
At the laboratory, Damann showed the delegation white lab tables on which bones had been tagged and arranged, some into the form of partial skeletons. Many of them are from men who died Dec. 7, 1941, on the USS Oklahoma when it was torpedoed and sunk by Japanese bombers, the lab’s largest identification project to date.
The lab has also identified 244 of 389 previously unidentified sailors and Marines from the USS Oklahoma, including three announced this week: Petty Officer 1st Class Paul Gebser, 39, of San Diego; Petty Officer 1st Class James Webb, 23, of Hobert, Arkansas; and Seaman 2nd Class Everett Windle, 19, of Kansas City.
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Others died in air crashes in Europe, or were buried as unknowns in U.S. military cemeteries after World War II but are now considered identifiable because of advances in forensic technology, such as DNA analysis.
“It’s a mission we hold dear in our hearts,” Damann said. “Generations removed, you still see an impact on these families.”
In a statement, Fortenberry called the lab a “hidden gem.”
“The lab is doing heroic work to uncover the remains of military personnel from all previous conflicts,” he said. “The men and women of the DPAA understand and embrace the real-world gravity of their mission.”
The agency’s other lab, in Hawaii, primarily handles remains from the Pacific region.
The Offutt lab was established to give the agency a presence in the continental United States and was selected because of its central location and the ample space in the giant former Martin Bomber Plant.
The plant has long been slated for demolition. No date has been set. Engineers say it will be very expensive to tear down, because the building is so large and contains asbestos and other hazardous materials.
The building found new use after the March 2019 flood that destroyed buildings containing more than 1 million square feet of office space at Offutt. Some displaced workers moved into renovated office space inside the Martin building.
Baird, the visiting congressman from Indiana, is a veteran who served in Vietnam as a young Army officer and lost his arm during the 1971 battle of Lam Son 719. He earned a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.
He said it was inspiring to visit the lab.
“When you’re on the battlefield, your goal is to bring everybody home,” Baird said. “It’s reassuring to know that if you can’t bring them home, dedicated people like these are here to do the job.”