Anthropology, Department of


First Advisor

Dr. William R. Belcher

Second Advisor

Dr. Heather Richards-Risetto

Third Advisor

Dr. Sophia Perdikaris

Date of this Version



Axelrod, E. N. (2022). Utilization of GIS in Tracking Disinterment and Movement of Unknown US WWII War Dead: Foundations for a Geospatial Approach to Addressing Commingled Remains. [Master’s Thesis, University of Nebraska – Lincoln]. Anthropology Department Theses and Dissertations.


A THESIS Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Master of Arts, Major: Anthropology, Under the Supervision of Professor William Belcher. Lincoln, Nebraska: December 2022

Copyright © 2022 Ella N. Axelrod

Part of an ongoing project in partnership with Oak Ridge Institute of Science and Education (ORISE) and the Defense POW MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). See McKinney 2022 for additional case study from other project data.


In the aftermath of World War II, the US was faced with the monumental task of finding and identifying over 405,000 service members who did not survive the conflict (McDermott, 2005, p. 1). Of these 405,000, 81,000 remain missing and 2,498 remain unidentified in cemeteries across Europe alone (American Battle Monuments Commission, 2022). Often, these individuals were interred and disinterred multiple times, crossing the continent in the journey from loss incident or battlefield to their final resting place. Commingling, the accidental mixing of remains, is an ever-present concern in the forensic identification of individuals from mass casualty incidents (Belcher et al., 2021). Each instance of disinterment and movement is an opportunity for commingling to occur. DNA testing is an oft relied upon method for distinguishing between individuals in these cases but can be time consuming and expensive. Further, when tests are conducted and results do not indicate a match with a suspected individual, this can compound the difficulty in establishing the unknown individual's identity. This project aims to establish a foundation for a spatially oriented approach to addressing commingling in these cases and aid in creating a "shortlist" of suspected individuals that may be a positive match. Through the creation of a geospatial tracking system, each unknown individual's path is traced in relation to known locations of origin and interment and can be analyzed in tandem with all unknown individuals that they have crossed paths. Likelihood of identification is inversely proportional to the interval between death and forensic analysis (Steere & Boardman, 1957). This is to say that identification becomes increasingly difficult and less likely to succeed as time grows between the death of an individual and an attempt at identifying them. Ultimately, time, volume of effort, and funds are limited resources in the mission to identify the US's remaining missing service members. The creation of tools that require fewer resources and can ease more intensive identification methods is a pursuit highly relevant to our efficiency in identification.

Advisor: William R. Belcher