History at Work: Probing the Army's X Files

Sarah Barksdale ’09 (MA, ’14 PhD) started her graduate studies assuming she’d become a university professor. After all, isn’t that what she was destined to do with her degree in 20th-century U.S. military history? Isn’t that what all Ph.D.’s do?

Sarah Barksdale ’09 (MA, ’14 PhD)

Well, no, and one of her mentors at Carolina made sure she understood that. Richard Kohn, history professor emeritus who also had spent a decade as chief historian for the U.S. Air Force, suggested she consider public history. “He had connections that a lot of academics don’t have,” Barksdale said, “and his guidance made it easy to see that there were options.”

That’s how she came to jointly lead the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s program of disinterring unidentified remains from American cemeteries in Europe with Josh Fennell ’01.

Both of Barksdale’s grandfathers were career military in the 1950s, although neither served in Korea. “One was white, one was black,” she said. “They served in an Army that had recently been integrated. My African American grandfather married a Japanese woman, my grandma. So I was interested in how race played out in the military.” Barksdale’s dissertation was titled “Prelude to a Revolution: African American World War II Veterans, Double Consciousness, and Civil Rights 1940–1955.”

When she looked for a historian job in the federal government, hoping to return to the Baltimore-Washington area that was home, she first landed with the Vietnam Commemoration Commission. “It wasn’t World War II, but it was 20th century. That generation is still very much alive. There are disputes. It was an interesting introduction to public history.”

When a historian position came open with the DPAA in 2016, she moved into a slot on its Mediterranean investigative team, concentrating on Sicily and Northern Italy, which includes many losses from the Buffalo Soldiers Division — the Army’s segregated 92nd Infantry Division. “A good fit,” she said.

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The war was over 75 years ago. Josh Fennell ’01 digs diligently through archives and European cornfields on an earnest mission — that no one is left behind.

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Her fieldwork typically takes her to Italy and other countries a few times a year. Like Fennell, she keeps current on hobbyist military history blogs and websites and maintains contact with enthusiasts “so when they find something they know who to call.”

The disinterment program deals with the more than 2,800 unidentified service personnel of WWII buried in American military cemeteries in Europe and in Veterans Administration cemeteries in the U.S.

Both during and after World War II, Barksdale explained, “the Army had people tasked with identifying the deceased. They got most of them, but some were buried as unknowns — men who had died at Omaha Beach, in the Battle of the Bulge and so on. Every individual who died in the war has an IDPF, an Individual Deceased Personnel File. They labeled each unknown with an X and a number and a cemetery location. We call them The X Files.

“The process starts with the historian taking a look at that paperwork — some done during the war, some in the years after. The info in an IDPF varies from not a lot to very specific. The National Archives has unit records, mission reports. We look at the unit’s operation history. If it’s an air loss, we look at the Missing Air Crew Report.”

When information on an active disinterment case reaches a sufficiently promising level, a historian will write a proposal to exhume the remains so they can be sent to the DNA lab. When a positive ID of an unknown is made, as with the location of a missing service member, the family is contacted and offered burial options.

“If it’s a case you’ve worked on,” Barksdale said, “if maybe you’ve sat down with the family, talked with family members, you recognize that an ending to the story means a great deal to them.”

— Dan Carlinsky


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