More than 82,000 Americans who served in the armed forces during wartime are still considered missing in action.
But not all of them will stay missing.
In offices and laboratories near Honolulu, in boats and scuba gear off the coast of Vietnam, or digging like paleontologists in abandoned island graveyards, men and women trained to follow ice-cold trails still search for those lost in the fog of war.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 97 will host its annual POW/MIA Remembrance Day Event at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame, 2231 R St. And the guest speaker, U.S. Navy Senior Chief Rick Flores, a hospital corpsman, will talk about the work done by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Hawaii, the national organization responsible for conducting global search, recovery and laboratory operations to identify unaccounted-for Americans from past conflicts.
"It's probably one of the most humbling experiences I've ever had," Flores said of being part of a mission to provide the fullest possible accounting for missing soldiers, sailors, Marines and airman from past wars.
Just this summer, the 38-year-old Southern California native was deployed to the Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands, where highly skilled civilians and active duty military personnel worked to excavate grave sites that date back to the battle of Tarawa, a battle in the Pacific Theater of World War II that was fought in November 1943.
"This mission is very dear to the Marines," Flores said.
Indeed, the Marines paid dearly for this small chunk of real estate and its airstrip held by 4,500 well-supplied Japanese defenders.
According to Flores, 1,100 Americans were killed in action in the three-day battle, and "432 remain unaccounted for," he said.
Flores spent seven days on the island, and it was an experience he won't forget.
The agency's mission, to find and repatriate the remains of those lost in combat is made possible by more than 600 talented civilians and active duty military from each branch of service. Historians, research analysts, policy experts, anthropologists, archivists, archaeologists, odontologists, linguists, logisticians, communications experts, material evidence experts, field operators, strategists and planners, divers, Special Forces medics, Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialists, mountaineers, and many others are integral to the agency's day-to-day operations.
Recovery teams deploy around the world, on land and sea for missions that can last up to 65 days — oftentimes to remote and dangerous locations, the agency says on its website.
"There are more than 82,000 unaccounted for Americans from past conflicts dating back to WWII, of these, we believe approximately 34,000 are possibly recoverable, and that is the focus of our recovery efforts," the agency says.
The remains of servicemen from Kern County have been found due to the ongoing efforts of the agency and its predecessor.
Just last year, after 52 years of uncertainty, the remains of James B. Mills, a Bakersfield High graduate turned U.S. Navy radar intercept operator were positively identified. Mills was barely 26 when he and pilot, James Bauder, lifted off the deck of the USS Coral Sea on an armed reconnaissance mission over what was then known as North Vietnam.
It was past midnight on Sept. 21, 1966 when their F-4B Phantom fighter jet disappeared from radar.
More than a half-century after Mills had been listed as missing in action, the POW/MIA Accounting Agency had done something few believed would ever happen.
The news came like a bombshell to Mills' family. Relief. Joy. Wonder. And yet, sober knowledge that their loved one did indeed lose his life on that dark Vietnamese night.
"After all those years had passed, we never thought we'd know anything," Mills' sister Ann Mills Griffiths, told The Californian last year.
"They came to tell me here in my office," she said in a phone call from her workplace in Falls Church, Va. "I was astounded. There were no tears. It was joy, totally."
Wayne Wright, commander of Post 97, said he's thrilled to have a representative from the agency scheduled to speak at Saturday's event. It's also the first time the event will be held at the Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame.
Wright lost his own brother to war. Allen Wright was lost in combat during the Korean War. He was also listed missing in action.
The event is free, but only 200 seats are available. Following the event, at 5 p.m. a barbecue dinner will be held at American Legion Post 26 at 2020 H St.
Cost is $15, or $13 for those who attended the earlier program.
For more information, call 496-4672.