Melanie Torres didn’t have much to start with.
The personnel file she got from the Army listed only the missing soldier’s name and his brother’s name. A partial immigration record from 1905 noted the little village in Italy where their family lived before resettling in the United States. She searched first for that.
The coastal Sicilian town pulled up millions of responses in a Google search. She narrowed it with their last name. The results didn’t look any better. She added “World War II veteran.” Nothing.
Torres switched her screen to FamilySearch, a genealogical website, and typed in the town again. There was microfilm that she could read at the library with birth, death and marriage records for the village from 1812 to 1915. It included thousands of images. She put it on hold.
After 100, 200, 300 clicks scanning through the material, she found it: an atti di nascita — Italian birth certificate — from 1892 with the brother’s name.
“It just unlocked this whole family tree,” Torres said.
From there, she got their parents’ names. She found three other siblings, too. And she followed the new leads back down the line to the missing soldier’s relatives who are alive today.
“They have this missing piece in their family that they want to figure out.”
Torres’ research is part of a U.S. Army project to find the living relatives of soldiers who went missing in action from World War II (which the United States entered in 1941) through the first Gulf War in Iraq (launched in 1990).
Brigham Young University’s Center for Family History and Genealogy in Provo is helping to track them down.
The military has assigned 65 cases to the Utah school since last year. A group of BYU students and faculty has found family members for 48 of them — including Torres’ work on the file of the Italian immigrant soldier, which she solved in May after 50 hours of digging and days before graduating.
The goal is that when remains of soldiers are found abroad — searches which the Army is actively conducting — they can be returned to families for burial and a sense of closure.
“That’s a commitment that the United States has made,” said Chuck Prichard, spokesman for the military’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. “These men and women have gone off into harm’s way to protect our way of life. As a nation, we owe it to them to bring them back.”
From WWII through the Gulf War, 82,000 American soldiers are unaccounted for, Prichard noted. More than 72,000 are from World War II. About 7,000 are from the Korean War. And fewer than 1,600 are from the Vietnam War.
The Army reaches out to living relatives of those missing in action — once BYU and other researchers locate them — and asks them if they’re willing to do a DNA test, which can be compared to any found remains, most of which are skeletal.
From October 2016 to March 2017, the Army returned 183 soldiers to their families.
The process of finding those relatives, though, is a difficult one. Jill Crandell, who oversees BYU’s family history center and its efforts on the project, said there’s often little information to start with. It’s sort of like if Sherlock Holmes were trying to solve a case blindfolded.
And the genealogical researchers are essentially working in reverse. Instead of building a family tree back in time for several generations, they’re trying to build it forward to today. They’re finding the living through the name of the dead.
“There’s just enough clues for us,” Crandell said.
BYU, a private university, is owned by the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has a dedicated genealogical division and operates FamilySearch (one of the world’s largest databases for family records). That’s why the military chose the school for its project. It’s the only college of the 19 participating to focus on finding living relatives for missing soldiers; the others specialize in anthropology and archaeology.
Crandell said some cases take a couple of weeks to finish, some take a couple of months. There’s one that her students have been investigating for a half-year that’s not solved yet.
“All of these cases seem to have something tricky in them,” said Kimberly Brown, an undergraduate working on the project.
The BYU team — five students, a fellow and Crandell — worked on a case in which the mother of a soldier continued to set a plate at the dinner table each night for her son, who was missing in action. They also spoke to the 97-year-old widow of a WWII soldier who still wants to know what happened to her husband. In Torres’ case, the Italian brother whose name she had and whose birth certificate she found also turned out to be unaccounted for, having died while fighting with U.S. troops in Europe.
Torres feels a connection to the family after learning its story. She also had a great-grandfather who served in World War II and a grandfather who had a military career. Her husband, too, is in the Air Force.
“It hits close to home,” she said. “I have family, and I would want to know what happened to them if, heaven forbid, they go missing in action.”