Skip to Content

Bill would support mission to bring missing Wisconsin war heroes home

Remaining Ad Time Ad - 00:00

JANESVILLE (WKOW) -- A bipartisan group of lawmakers is set to introduce a bill that would help bring home Wisconsin soldiers still missing after World War II.

Chris Campbell has made it his mission to return his uncle to his hometown of Janesville.

"It became just wanting to know and fulfill that and hopefully get him back home," Campbell said.

As war was raging in Europe, 17-year-old John Campbell and his cousin Willard enlisted in the Wisconsin Army National Guard.

"These were individuals that volunteered, that basically stepped up and did what what the nation needed at the time," Chris Campbell told 27 News.

After Pearl Harbor, the cousins were sent to the Philippines, taken prisoner by the Japanese and fought to survive the Bataan death march of 1942.

"I just can't imagine watching your cousin waste away and then die in front of you," said Campbell.

Neither made it back, devastating Campbell's father and grandparents. A third family member was also killed. They were young men who would become known as the Janesville 99. Two-thirds of them died from starvation or disease.

Researchers believe about a dozen of the 99 are still unidentified, buried in mass graves or lost at sea. They're part of the more than 1,500 MIA military members in Wisconsin.

"They fought for us and we owe them a debt to them and their families to be able to recover them," said Samantha Zinnen. "When we're doing that, we help, in a way, provide closure and give back to those communities."

Zinnen is part of the UW MIA Recovery & Identification Project. The team of volunteers have worked three cases in Europe since 2014, returning two soldiers home to their families and they just finished archaeological work in Belgium on the third. The group is hosting an open house on September 19 on campus.

But that work comes with a cost, as the team has set their sights on helping families of the hundreds of MIA cases in the state.

"When we go into the field with the DOD, they fund that mission, but [otherwise] it's funded through private donations, through in kind donations from the school and hopefully now the state with the bill," Zinnen told 27 News.

Lawmakers will soon introduce a bill that would pay for a pilot program to work on local cases.

"The dollar amount included would fund anywhere between one to three [cases] actually going out in the field, recovering remains, bringing them home, identifying them here at the technology center," said Tristan Krause, a legislative aide and a volunteer for the MIA recovery team.

With the funding, the historians would also be able to follow up on cases where recovering remains will not be possible, but there could be more information to provide to families. Experts believe that would apply to around 40 percent of the Wisconsin cases.

Many of the lawmakers supporting the effort are active and former service members. The bill authors include Rep. Ken Skowronski (R-Franklin), Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee), Sen. Roger Roth (R-Appleton), Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona) and Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison).

"We think we can be the first state in the nation to kind of fund these missions at the state level, and kind of lead the way," said Alec Fischer, legislative assistant for Rep. Ken Skowronski.

So far, the team has focused on cases in Europe, but Chris Campbell has hope his uncle's remains will some day be positively identified, too. 

He's also submitted DNA to the federal government.

"I think when they put the resources of the UW behind this project, hopefully sooner than later, a lot of this will be resolved," he said.

For now, an empty plot sits alongside John Campbell's parent's graves in Janesville, waiting for him to come home.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

Skip to content