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Wabasso World War II soldier identified 82 years later thanks to DNA, forensics

Army Private Robert Hurst died in the Cabanatuan camp on July 27, 1942
Posted at 3:37 PM, Feb 15, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-15 20:34:16-05

VERO BEACH, Fla. — Right now, teams of scientists, historians and countless others are searching for World War II servicemen still missing around the world.

About 72,000 American servicemen are listed as unaccounted for and many were from Florida. That number gets smaller each day as families receive closure.

That’s about to happen for a Vero Beach family after 82 years of mystery, frustration and sadness.

Army Private Robert Hurst from Wabasso will be given full military honors at his burial at the Winter Beach Cemetery in Indian River County on Saturday.

WPTV anchor and Navy veteran Mike Trim spoke with the Hurst family and the teams that worked through the years that made Hurst's positive identification.

Robert Hurst's nephew, Donald Hurst, still can’t believe it.

Donald Hurst Robert Hurst nephew Vero Beach soldier WWII
Donald Hurst, Robert Hurst nephew, is emotional knowing that their family has closure and that his grandparents' wish was fulfilled.

"I said to myself, this will never come true in my lifetime," he said.

Robert Hurst's whereabouts have been family folklore for a generation.

"I heard stories that I’d sit and listen to the adults talk about he was missing in action," Cousin Joyce Hurst-Sumner said. "That’s what they said."

Department of Defense POW-MIA accounting agency senior historian Dr. Gregory Kupsky described the process of officially accounting for Hurst.

"It is like a needle in a haystack or as I said, like trying to put together a very problematic and incomplete puzzle," Kupsky said.

Robert Hurst Cousin Joyce Hurst-Sumner .png
Robert Hurst's cousin Joyce Hurst-Sumner (left) is thankful she is able to witness this come to fruition.

In 1941, Robert Hurst enlisted in the Army. America hadn't entered the war yet, but by 1942 the country's military and Robert Hurst were in the thick of it.

Hurst was serving in the 429th signal maintenance company in the Philippines. In December 1942, Japanese forces overtook the Philippines' Bataan peninsula, including Robert Hurst's company.

"In the case of Private Hurst, his unit surrendered as part of the larger surrender," Kupsky said.

It was the largest surrender of U.S. forces in American military history. About 12,000 American soldiers were captured and then forced into the Bataan Death March, walking more than 60 miles to prisoner-of-war camps.

"The Bataan Death March, where thousands of prisoners, who were already in bad shape, were forced to walk over 60 miles to a railhead to take them to camps," Kupsky said. "So, the death rate was very high."

Dr Gregory Kupsky Robert Hurst remains identified 02152024
Department of Defense POW-MIA accounting agency senior historian Dr. Gregory Kupsky describes the process of officially accounting for Robert Hurst.

Robert Hurst made it to Camp Cabanatuan, a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Starvation and disease took the lives of thousands of U.S. and Philippine servicemen.

For months, Robert Hurst held on, but we now know, he died in the camp on July 27, 1942. His remains were buried in a camp common grave.

After the war, several groups from America and the Philippines moved thousands of remains from prisoner-of-war camps to the Manilla American cemetery in the Philippines. It is the largest of all American overseas cemeteries.

Cared for by countless people over decades, Robert Hurst's remains, still unaccounted for, were kept in a grave with other unidentified soldiers marked "unknown."

"Because they did their job very well and kept good records, that’s how we’re able to make these IDs today," Dr. Timothy McMahon of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab said.

Dr Timothy McMahon of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab
Dr. Timothy McMahon of the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab credits good record keeping as part of identifying Robert Hurst's remains.

In 2018, 225 graves were disinterred at the Manilla cemetery and remains were sent to Department of Defense labs in the U.S.

First up, was forensic anthropologist Dr. Traci Van Deest and staff going to work.

"The first thing we have to do is, they're assigned to an anthropologist, who then assesses what is present and how many individuals are possibly there," Deest said.

Carefully combing through remains, Deest's team identified enough human remains and sent them to the armed forces medical examiner system DNA lab.

More meticulous work, especially those from Hurst’s prisoner of war camp in Cabanatuan. It was one of two Japanese prisoner-of-war camps in that region.

Conditions were deplorable and dozens of men were buried in the same graves.

Dr Traci Van Deest WWII soldier identified Vero Beach 02152024
Forensic anthropologist Dr. Traci Van Deest explains the process of identifying remains via DNA sampling.

"For any of these Cabanatuan, they're each unique and difficult in their own ways, because of how they were buried, what happened in the death camps," McMahon said.

At this point, the team of scientists, historians and anthropologists believed they had enough evidence to potentially identify Robert Hurst and other soldiers' remains.

That's when the Army reached out to Robert Hurst’s family asking for a DNA sample, hoping to match it to DNA from the remains.

In July 2023, the Department of Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency announced a positive match. Robert Hurst was officially accounted for.

"That moment is extremely powerful and incredible," Deest said. "To know that the whole team, from all of us that work on this agency and on this mission, have been able to finally get to a point that we can give answers to a family."

"It makes a special feeling in your heart," Donald Hurst said. "I hope that my grandma and grandpa are proud of us because that was their wish for him to be here."

Robert Hurst will be buried with full military honors at Winter Beach Cemetery in Vero Beach at 11 a.m. Saturday.

A public viewing is being coordinated by Cox-Gifford Seawinds Funeral Home on Friday.