Until a few months ago, Jay Banta of Omaha knew next to nothing about his father’s cousin, Don Banta, who died at age 22 during World War II.

Then, out of the blue, a representative of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency called and asked if he would provide a DNA sample to help identify his missing relative.

“I was thrilled, I was surprised,” said Banta, 77. “I didn’t even know him.”

He sent off the sample. And the phone call set him on a path to learn about this lost cousin, who he has since learned was a turret gunner on a B-24 bomber that crashed in Germany on Feb. 24, 1944.

It is what led Banta and his wife, Linda, to join almost 150 other relatives of U.S. service members reported missing in combat since World War II at a meeting Saturday at the Omaha Marriott.

The agency’s “family member updates” are held four times a year in cities across the country. Speakers at the sessions fill in families on the latest efforts to identify and bring home their loved ones.

It’s only the second such meeting held in Omaha, and the first here since the agency opened its second laboratory in 2013 at nearby Offutt Air Force Base. The first, opened in 1965, is in Honolulu.

Family members had a chance to tell the stories of their missing loved ones. Some of them did so while holding back tears.

Jay Banta told about Don Banta, who was born near Clearwater, Nebraska, and later moved to California. He was last seen on the flight deck for the B-24 before it was hit by flak near Fulda, Germany. Two soldiers bailed out before the plane exploded in midair and were taken prisoner by the Germans. Banta didn’t survive and was never found.

POW/MIA update

Relatives of missing service members receive a briefing during a tour Friday of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency lab at Offutt Air Force Base, which opened in 2013.

Jerry Evans of Lawrence, Kansas, was a Marine serving in Vietnam on March 13, 1968. His brother, Cleveland Evans Jr., was also serving there and died in a helicopter crash that day. But his body was never recovered.

“He was coming to see me when his chopper went down,” Jerry Evans said. “He was real close to me, and I miss him dearly. Hopefully, we can get some news that he’s (coming) back.”

The agency’s senior leaders briefed the families on field excavations at burial and plane crash sites in Europe and the Pacific and on the disinterments of some of the more than 5,000 unidentified service members who were buried in U.S. military cemeteries overseas as “unknowns.”

Among new developments:

  • While the DNA of many of these long-buried bodies has degraded over time, newer types of tests are allowing the agency to make identifications that would have been impossible just a few years ago.
  • The agency plans to disinter and try to identify the more than 500 Korean War “unknowns” buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.
  • More than 200 of the 388 missing sailors who died at Pearl Harbor aboard the USS Oklahoma have now been identified through the work of the Offutt lab.
  • More than 60 nonprofit or university groups are now partnering with the agency to recover and identify remains.
  • The University of Delaware recently demonstrated a remotely operated mini-submarine that may expand the agency’s ability to excavate underwater ship or airplane wrecks, especially at depths below the 150 feet that human divers can currently reach.

The agency has worked cooperatively with the governments of 46 countries to search for American MIAs, including Russia and China. Only one, North Korea, is not cooperating, said the agency’s director, Kelly McKeague. About 5,300 service members are missing there.

One of them is Earl Stiles of Council Bluffs, who died in a prison camp near the Chinese border after being captured Dec. 1, 1950, during the Chosin Reservoir campaign.

His sister, Shirley Smith, also of the Bluffs, wants to make sure that her brother isn’t forgotten. This was the latest of many family update meetings she has attended.

She was only 8 years old when Pearl Harbor was attacked, she said, and her brother enlisted the next day. He fought to the end of World War II and was called up again to serve in Korea. The family was heartbroken to receive the “Missing in Action” telegram. After the war, he was declared dead, but the family was left with an empty feeling.

“He died of malnutrition and the cold. We heard from a man who shared a blanket with him in the camp,” Smith said. “We are hoping you can find his body.”

Loved one's medal

Shirley Smith of Council Bluffs shows a medal awarded by the South Korean government in honor of her brother, Earl Stiles, who was taken prisoner during the Korean War and died in a prison camp. She attended a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency meeting Saturday in Omaha.

The accounting agency has a budget of about $130 million. Last year, it identified 203 missing service members, the highest number to date. More than 72,000 have been reported missing since World War II, about 34,000 of whom are considered to be recoverable.

Tim McMahon, director of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, whose Dover, Delaware, lab processes DNA samples, urged anyone with an MIA family member to donate a DNA sample because identifications can’t be made unless there’s a family sample to compare it with.

The agency has family samples for about 90% of Korean and Vietnam War MIAs, but only 6% of MIAs from World War II.

The current roster of Nebraska MIAs includes 717 from World War II, 59 from the Korean War, 11 from the Vietnam War and two from the Cold War.

The list of Iowa MIAs includes 1,330 from World War II, 132 from the Korean War, 22 from the Vietnam War and one from the Cold War.

Banta was one of several family members who toured the Offutt lab Friday and came away impressed.

“I’m totally blown away by the fact that so, so much effort is going to find our loved ones,” he said.