SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – A case of mistaken identity at the Santa Fe National Cemetery. It had the Army out there this week, exhuming a grave to find out who really has been buried there for the last six decades.
A major shift in World War II happened after the Japanese defeated American and Filipino troops on the Philippine Islands in 1942. Those troops were sent on the infamous Bataan Death March to the Japanese POW camp. One of the 2,800 prisoners who died in the camp was Private First Class Juan Gutierrez.
“PFC Gutierrez passed away on November 19, 1942,” said William “Shorty” Cox with the U.S. Army. “There were 13 other people that passed away on that day, they were all buried in one grave.”
After the war ended, the military believed they found Gutierrez’s remains and sent them back to his family, who buried him at the Santa Fe National Cemetery in 1950. Years later, when DNA analysis became a useful tool to identify soldiers’ remains, the Department of Defense came across more of Gutierrez’s remains in a mass grave in the Philippines. So who is buried in his grave in Santa Fe?
“It was during that time frame that the Department of Defense realized there was co-mingling among those remains,” said Cox.
In order to find out, the Army had to petition the courts to exhume the grave since they couldn’t find any of Gutierrez’s immediate family. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs eventually agreed to do the disinterment, which crews began working on Thursday.
“We have to separate the remains that aren’t Gutierrez’s in that casket,” said Cox. “So it’s kind of like putting a puzzle back together.”
The military hopes to finally put Gutierrez’s and the other soldiers’ remains to rest and will give them full military honors when they are re-buried.
“You have to do the moral thing,” said Cox.
The military told KRQE News 13 they eventually found Gutierrez’s family in California and they gave permission to exhume the grave. About 37,000 soldier’s remains are still unaccounted for from WWII.