Remains of veterans killed in WWII military prison fire to be disinterred, identified

Families of veterans who died in a Tokyo military prison fire in 1945, including a North Dakotan, are hopeful their loved ones' remains can finally be brought home.

Lon Enerson and Irvin Ellingson
Lon Enerson holds a photo of his uncle, Irvin Ellingson, of Dahlen, North Dakoa, who died in World War II. He and other family members are trying to get Ellingson's remains identified and returned home.
We are part of The Trust Project.

FARGO — Family members of veterans killed in a Japanese military prison fire during World War II, including one from North Dakota, have received the news they’ve been longing to hear.

Wheels are in motion to identify the veterans' remains after approval was granted for disinterment from a U.S. military cemetery in Manila, the Philippines, family members said.

The remains of U.S. Army Air Forces Staff Sgt. Irvin C. Ellingson of Dahlen, North Dakota, could be among them.

Picture of Flight Crew.jpg
U.S. Army Air Forces Staff Sgt. Irvin C. Ellingson of Dahlen, North Dakota, served as part of this 11-man crew during WWII. He is pictured in the front row, second from right. Contributed photo

Lon Enerson, a nephew of Ellingson who’s been pushing for disinterment through military channels, as well as North Dakota and Minnesota congressional delegations, is thrilled.

“After waiting 77 years … we’re just ecstatic,” said Enerson, who grew up near his uncle and now lives in St. Cloud.


Ellingson was among 62 American service members held captive at the prison that caught fire in May of 1945 as a result of an American B-29 bombing raid.

None of them survived.

Of the remains recovered from the site after the war, more than two dozen were identified as American service members.

But the remains of 37 other Americans, which might include Ellingson, were buried as “unknowns” and commingled at the Manila American Cemetery.

The Department of Defense requires at least 60% of veterans’ families in these situations to provide DNA samples or similar identification as a condition for disinterment.

As documented in an October 2021 story in The Forum, that figure stood for some time at 59.68% for the Tokyo prison fire families.

With a push over the last few months by Enerson and other affected families, “all of sudden we were at 64%,” Enerson said.

In a memo, Gilbert Ray Cisneros Jr., the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, granted approval for the disinterment and extended the timeframe to make identification from 48 months to 72 months.


“Due to extensive commingling of the remains and the likely chemical treatment prior to their interment, advanced analytic procedures such as Next Generation Sequencing for deoxyribonucleic acid samples will be required.

"It will likely take several years to identify as many of the unknowns as possible, with no assurances as to exactly how many,” Cisneros wrote.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency will coordinate with the American Battle Monuments Commission on the removal of remains and identification.

Enerson and his wife hoped to be present in Manila but have been told disinterment is conducted after hours and is closed to the public.

This is the 1936 high school graduation photo of Irvin Ellingson of Dahlen, North Dakota. Staff Sgt. Ellingson served as a radar operator in World War II. Contributed photo

Families haven’t been given a date when it will occur but were told once approved, “things happen quickly.”

Enerson hopes that’s the case, because disinterment is not done during the rainy season in Manila, which runs from May through November.

Enerson said remains will either be brought to a new forensic lab in Hawaii or to Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, for the long process of identification.

“All it takes is a little bone fragment, and we’ll have closure,” he said.

Huebner is a 35+ year veteran of broadcast and print journalism in Fargo-Moorhead.
What to read next
The 12 plaintiffs suffered injuries including bruising from less-lethal munitions, lingering respiratory issues from tear gas and psychological trauma, the ACLU said.
Denver Fowler, renowned paleontologist and curator of the Badlands Dinosaur Museum in Dickinson, shares his ground breaking research on a newly discovered species of North American tyrannosaur. His work provides a link in a lineage leading to T-rex.
As nurses, Emily and Lauri Shimpa are carrying on a tradition, established by Lauri’s mother, JoClaire Paulson, who worked as a nurse for many years. You could say it’s in their blood.
Lynn and Jason Kotrba have a personal connection with Huntington's Disease and wanted to help with the potentially life-saving Huntington's Disease research.