Nearly 76 years after Fort Lauderdale Medal of Honor winner Alexander R. “Sandy” Nininger Jr. was killed in action in the Philippines, the United States is refusing his family’s request to use DNA testing to identify Nininger’s remains and bring him home.
Nininger, the first American soldier awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II, is officially listed as missing, a status that includes GIs known to be dead but whose bodies haven’t been recovered.
Yet Nininger’s nephew and next of kin, John A. Patterson, says he knows precisely where his uncle is buried as an Unknown: Manila American Cemetery Grave J-7-20.
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“The search has dragged on for years, but I never gave up and thought that this was over,” said Patterson, a former Rhode Island state senator who lives in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. He and his sister, Linda Carney of Deland, have provided DNA samples that the Army has never employed for testing.
Patterson is one of seven military relatives who on May 25 asked a federal judge in Texas to force the Department of Defense, the American Battle Monuments Commission and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, known by the acronym DPAA, to conduct exhumations and tests that they believe will finally identify their fallen uncles, brothers and grandfathers.
“These next of kin have spent decades navigating a byzantine bureaucracy controlled by reams of dense and confusing rules, regulations, directives, statutes and white papers in their futile attempts to honor the Army’s own warrior code ‘I will never leave a fellow comrade,’ ” wrote plaintiffs’ attorney Benoit Letendre in court papers filed Oct. 16.
Last full measure of devotion
“Notwithstanding giving their last full measure of devotion to this country, the government now declines, on technical legal grounds as opposed to the spirit of the law, to give the plaintiffs’ fallen service members a decent burial in a marked grave.”
The government asked the court to toss the case on technical grounds, saying it was legally insufficient. On Nov. 20, U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez in San Antonio agreed, dismissing the case but allowing the relatives to amend their complaint by Dec. 4.
Last week, the relatives were seeking an extension of the deadline to allow them time to retain a new attorney to refile their complaint.
The DPAA and ultimately the Defense Department are responsible for accounting for Americans who went missing while serving the country. The American Battle Monuments Commission commemorates the sacrifice of U.S. armed forces and administers military cemeteries overseas.
The POW/MIA agency was formed in January 2015 to replace a scandal-ridden predecessor agency. Earlier this year, however, Stars & Stripes reported the DPAA continued to be “hampered by bureaucratic problems that plagued its predecessors.”
DPAA spokesman Lee O. Tucker told Florida Bulldog, “DPAA is not fighting the families of our missing service members. We’re moving forward to get all common graves disinterred but it does take some time.”
Said Patterson: “No one left behind is a great slogan and you can do it when you’re winning, but we weren’t winning then and we left a lot behind. We want to bring them back.”
Declassified military files
To make their case, Patterson and the other relatives have relied on declassified military files obtained by John Eakin of Helotes, Texas, a relative of once-missing World War II Pvt. Arthur “Bud” Kelder. Eakin used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain approximately 10,000 Individual Deceased Personnel Files regarding unidentified remains buried as Unknowns. Eakin’s efforts led to the recovery in the Philippines last year of the partial remains of Kelder.
“I never knew the files existed until John [Eakin] came along,” Patterson said.
The records — known as the X-Files because of the way remains were administered — include Army reports from the 1940s and 1950s that allowed the tracking of burials and reburials to precise common grave sites or, as in Sandy Nininger’s case, exact individual grave markers.
But the X-files revealed something else about the Army’s recovery effort, according to Eakin. “Forty percent of the X-files have an obvious identification error,” he said.
The relatives, whose soldiers are all buried as Unknowns at the Manila American Cemetery, contend in their 17-page lawsuit that DPAA has “repeatedly refused to consider this evidence or conduct newer, more reliable, inexpensive and readily available DNA sequencing tests to identify the remains.”
About 73,000 World War II soldiers are listed as missing, including 917 from Florida. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers are buried as Unknowns in American cemeteries overseas, the largest of which is the 152-acre Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, with more than 17,000 graves.
Joined with Nininger in the lawsuit are four privates, a colonel and a general who all died in the Philippines the same year.
Brig. Gen. Guy O. Fort, commander of the 81st Army Division (Philippines), was taken prisoner in September 1942 and is the only American-born general officer to be executed by enemy forces. According to Wikipedia, Fort was shot by a firing squad on Nov. 11, 1942, after refusing to instruct his former soldiers to end guerrilla warfare against the Japanese occupiers.
General Fort’s remains are “buried as an Unknown in Manila American Cemetery Grave L-8-113,” the lawsuit, says.
Col. Loren P. Stewart was Nininger’s regimental commander. Government documents contain a witness to his burial near Abucay Hacienda, where his remains were later exhumed by Army personnel and given the designation X-3629. The lawsuit says he was buried as an Unknown because of a military screw-up — the name Stewart was misspelled as Stuart on a request for his dental records. The lawsuit says Stewart is buried in Grave N-15-19 in the Manila American Cemetery.
Some of the documents about Nininger, a 1937 graduate of Fort Lauderdale High School, are heart-rending. Like the yellowed copy of a blunt Jan. 29, 1942, telegram from the War Department to Nininger’s father, Alexander Sr., notifying him of his son’s death 15 days before.
“The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son Second Lieutenant Alexander R. Nininger Junior United States Army was killed in action in defense of his country in the Philippine Islands January twelfth STOP Delay in reporting facts to you caused by communication difficulties STOP”
Included, too, are letters later sent to the War Department by Nininger Sr., from his home on the Tarpon River at 222 SE 10th St., requesting information about “the grave and remains of my son.”
Father’s desire for burial at West Point
“It is the desire of Mrs. Nininger and myself that his remains be brought back to this country, and if it can be arranged, to be buried at West Point,” Nininger Sr. wrote on Sept. 3, 1946. “We will anxiously await your reply.”
The Niningers were divorced and she soon faded from the picture. But years of back and forth correspondence between Sandy’s father and the Army continued into the early 1950s without a resolution. Said Patterson, “My grandfather couldn’t accept it” when the Army categorized his son’s remains as “nonrecoverable” in 1951.
Sandy Sr., who’d managed a movie theater in Lake Worth, died in his 70s in the early 1950s, Patterson said.
For Sandy Jr., life was full of promise when he graduated from West Point in May 1941. Patterson, now 81, remembers that during a brief family visit that summer his freshly minted officer-uncle opened his suitcase to show an awe-struck 5-year-old boy his uniform.
“I remember that, but I don’t remember him,” said Patterson, with a wisp of sadness.
Lt. Nininger was soon sent to the Philippines where he was attached to the 57th Infantry Regiment of the Philippine Scouts. When the Japanese invaded, his unit wasn’t yet in combat, so he volunteered to join another company then under attack by forces “superior in firepower.”
Nininger was killed in action a month after Pearl Harbor, Jan. 12, 1942, near the Bataan town of Abucay. He was 23.
The Medal of Honor
President Franklin Roosevelt awarded Nininger a posthumous Medal of Honor in February 1942 for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty.” Says the citation:
“Enemy snipers in trees and foxholes had stopped a counterattack to regain part of position. In hand-to-hand fighting which followed, 2nd Lt. Nininger repeatedly forced his way to and into the hostile position. Though exposed to heavy enemy fire, he continued to attack with rifle and hand grenades and succeeded in destroying several enemy groups in foxholes and enemy snipers. Although wounded three times, he continued his attacks until he was killed after pushing alone far within the enemy position. When his body was found after recapture of the position, 1 enemy officer and 2 enemy soldiers lay dead around him.
In 2010, the Army held a memorial ceremony for Nininger at Arlington National Cemetery complete with a 21-gun salute and a white marker bearing his name at the site of a possible future-resting place when his remains are found. Patterson, as next of kin, accepted the folded flag that day.
Today, Fort Lauderdale honors Nininger with a bronze statue on Riverwalk and his name on a city street. In Pembroke Pines, a nursing home for veterans is named for Nininger. At West Point, where Nininger’s Medal of Honor is kept, a cadet barracks is named Nininger Hall. The academy bestows its Nininger Award on graduates who have displayed “heroic action in battle.”
The effort to identify and repatriate Nininger’s remains and those of other MIAs began at the end of World War II.
In Nininger’s case, the X-files include documents showing that by 1949 the Army’s American Graves Registration Service had identified Nininger’s remains as Unknown X-4685, which were recovered from Grave 9 of the Abucay Cemetery. “In view of the above, it is the opinion of this headquarters that the remains of Unknown X-4685 are in reality those of Lt. Nininger,” says a Nov. 28, 1949, report recommending approval of the identification.
But the following August the Quartermaster General’s office in San Francisco disapproved the recommendation. It cited a height comparison that it said showed Nininger was five feet eleven inches tall and the “estimated height” of X-4685 was five feet two inches. (For reasons that are unclear, the X-4685 remains were later designated as X-1131).
‘A mingling of bones’
Patterson said the alleged discrepancy is easily explained, noting that Nininger’s body wasn’t in a coffin. Rather, he was buried near others in his tarpaulin shelter-half, a partial tent carried by GIs. “There was a mingling of bones,” Patterson said.
In September 1951, the Army sent Lt. Col. E.M. Brown to visit Sandy’s father in Fort Lauderdale to “clear up the reason for declaring the remains non-recoverable” in the wake of “many conflicting stories and eyewitness accounts.”
“The father had a file of letters from various officers of the command in which his son served. It was pointed out that there were many inconsistencies in the various versions of the incident of burial,” Brown wrote in his report.
Nininger wrote a polite letter to the Army the next day, one of the last in the Army’s file, saying thanks for the visit and expressing his belief “that eventually you will locate the remains of my son.”
Seven decades later, Fort Lauderdale’s hero-soldier is still officially listed as missing in action.