Not long after the United States was forced into the World War II, 23-year old First Lt. Alexander Nininger found himself alone in a Filipino foxhole.
Armed with two rifles, grenades, and a bayonet, the young soldier made his way in and out of trenches, tossing explosives and firing off rounds until he ran out of ammunition.
He succumbed to gunfire when he found himself left with only a bayonet, but his heroics managed to stave off the Japanese for months.
Weeks after his death, Nininger was awarded the first Medal of Honor of the Second World War.
The New York Times writes that in the years after his death, Nininger has been celebrated as an American hero. He’s had statues dedicated to his memory, was the focus of a Malcom Gladwell treatise on human potential, and is the namesake of an annual award at West Point.
But despite the veneration he’s received as the first recognized hero of America’s involvement in World War II, Nininger’s body was never recovered from the battlefield.
The U.S. Army lists him as ‘nonrecoverable,’ according to the Times.
Nininger’s family disagrees, saying their relative’s remains lie in Grave J-7-20 at the American Cemetery in Manila, the capital city of the Philippines.
His family, along with six families of other ‘unknown soldiers,’ are suing the Department of Defense.
They say that despite their pleas and the ready availability of technology, the department has refused to unearth J-7-20 and compare the DNA still lingering in his bones with that of potential relatives.
The Department of Defense, according to Nininger’s family and the other plaintiffs, is ‘flouting its legal duty to track down “missing persons from past conflicts or their remains after hostilities have ceased.”’
John Patterson, the 80-year old nephew of Nininger, said to The New York Times that he’s researched high and low to try giving a name to the bones he believes may have belonged to his uncle.
“It seems like the least we could do,” he said, speaking in an interview from his home in North Kingston, RI. “He was a real hero who sacrificed himself.”
The Times says the ‘target’ of the suit is Defense POW/M.I.A. Account Agency, which is overseen by the Pentagon and ‘tasked with accounting for the roughly 45,000 recoverable lost service members dating back to World war II.’
Although the office has a budget of $115 million per year, its recovery effort has reunited the remains of soldiers with their loved ones, on average, only 90 times per year for the past five.
Patterson says he spent the time and money to find the resting site of Alexander Nininger, speaking to survivors and eyewitnesses who told him approximately where the soldier was buried.
He traveled to a churchyard in Manila which matched the description contacts had given him before finding the grave of the unidentified man buried in J-7-20.
While anthropologists the New York Times contacted said that opening the coffins of unknown soldiers doesn’t always lead to answers, Patterson has tried, time and time again, to convince the Department of Defense to take a chance. From 1993 through 2015, Nininger’s nephew applied and was denied the opportunity to try identifying the possible remains of his uncle. His request to get information on an appeals process went unanswered.
Unwilling to admit defeat, Patterson hopes that litigation will compel the Department of Defense to investigate J-7-20, as well as the graves of hundreds of other unknown soldiers.
“Once again maybe he can lead,” said Patterson. “This time from the grave.”