You have probably never heard of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC). I hadn’t either until last week when I read an extraordinary book about genealogy.

There are still about 75,000 US GIs unaccounted for from World War II, about 8,000 from the Korean campaign and around 1,700 from Viet Nam. But human remains from those conflicts and many others are still being found. JPAC, a multi-service US military operation based in Hawaii, is responsible for identifying those remains, and finding and notifying the “primary next of kin” (PNOK).

It’s a complicated business, combining the skills of archaeologists, anthropologists, crime scene technicians, and pathologists with the latest technology in forensics, especially the rapidly developing capabilities of DNA matching. But all of that is useless without the final component, the humble genealogist.

Thus begins the book Hey, America, You’re Roots Are Showing by super genealogist Megan Smolenyak.


Megan Smolenyak, author of Hey America, Your Roots Are Showing

In the first chapter she explains her role at JPAC. The forensics team assembles as much information as they can from the recovery scene, using dog tags (if available…they didn’t even exist before World War I), other artifacts, dental records and military history records. If they can provide some sort of preliminary identification, it becomes Smolenyak’s job to to track down the PNOK or other suitable DNA donor so that DNA matching can be used to make a positive confirmation of the identity of the remains, then notify the PNOK.

She tells fascinating stories, ranging from cases in which a mother was married half a dozen times and moved thrice that many times to an identical twin who served in the same combat zone as his twin, yet never knew that he even had an identical twin until just a few years ago.

But that is only the first 22 pages. There is more, much more.

Such as the story about how she tracked Barak Obama’s mother’s family back to Ireland, making him the 22nd U.S. President with Irish ancestry, the first being Andy Jackson. Or how she tracked Michelle Obama’s roots to the Jumpers, an early 19th century free black family.

Then there are stories about who would be king or queen today if George Washington had decided that he wanted to be royalty (King Spotswood, King Bushrod, Queen Brynda?), the extremely complex and frustrating battles fought by adopted children, the vagaries of Eliis Island and who really changed your ancestors’ names, prostitutes and philandering grandfathers, the FBI and Annie Moore, one of the first known cases of identity theft.

I have two favorites. The first is that of the slave Phillip Reed and how he was bought in Charleston, moved to the District of Columbia and came to cast the statue of Freedom that stands atop the U.S. Capitol.


Freedom, US Capitol, Washington, DC

The other is the almost unbelievable story of serial centenarians, one Hiram Cronk, born in the final years of the 18th century, and his great-granddaughter, Jane, who lived into the 21st century, thus spanning four centuries between them.

The extraordinary part of the story is that Jane was born in 1902 and lived in the same house in as her great-grandfather until his death in 1905, so they actually knew each other. The only U.S. Presidents that their two lifespans did not cover were the first, George Washington, and the current President, Barak Obama.

And if that is not enough for you, Hiram fought in the War of 1812 as a teenager and at his death in 1905 was the last survivor of that war. His body was displayed at the New York City city hall, viewed by an estimated 25,000 people, followed by an enormous parade to his final resting place at Cypress Hills cemetery in Brooklyn.

The event was so big that the Library of Congress dispatched a movie team to record the parade. The unedited film is available online. In it you will see cavalry and infantry troops from the Spanish-American War. And the hearse is escorted by Union veterans of the Civil War.

I occasionally hear people say that they think genealogy is boring. They don’t know what they are talking about.


Coming soon to a library near you.