The returned remains are associated with the fight at what was called the "Frozen Chosin" for the sub-zero temperatures in which Marine and Army units fought their way out of encirclement by Chinese forces and were evacuated by sea, said Dr. John Byrd, a forensic anthropologist.
Byrd, who went to Wonsan in North Korea last week as part of the team that brought back the remains, said he was told by North Korean officials that the remains were recovered from the village of Sin Hung-ri on the east side of the reservoir.
Marines fought on the west side of the reservoir, "and the east side -- that's where the Army was," said Byrd, laboratory director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA).
At a Pentagon briefing with retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, the DPAA director, Byrd said his initial examination of the remains, and his discussions with the North Koreans, led him to believe that further analysis will show that the remains are those of Americans.
In addition, the 55 transfer cases handed over by the North Koreans contained equipment associated with the American military, such as boots, canteens, buttons and buckles, Byrd said.
There also was one dog tag, he added. He declined to disclose the name on the tag but said two family members had been notified and are expected to be in the Washington, D.C., area next week with family groups for a detailed briefing from DPAA on the next steps in identifying the remains.
"You should not assume one box is one person," he said. "We couldn't be sure how many individuals were in each box."
McKeague said that DPAA has a DNA database from 92 percent of the families of the estimated 7,700 U.S. service members still listed as missing from the 1950-53 Korean War and DNA comparisons with the remains from the 55 cases would begin shortly.
He said samples from the remains would be sent to the Armed Forces Identification Laboratories at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to begin the DNA process.
"Where we have compelling DNA matches, identifications could come quickly," McKeague said, but he and Byrd also cautioned that the process could take years.
Identifications could also come quickly if teeth are found among the remains, McKeague said.
"We could immediately compare dental records," he said.
Another method of identification was through chest x-rays that were on file for those who served in the Korean War, McKeague said. He said that DPAA has chest radiographs for about three-quarters of the missing from the Korean War.
The key to identifications from chest X-rays was the clavicle, or collarbone, said Chuck Prichard, a DPAA spokesman. Clavicles are unique to each individual, "as unique as a fingerprint," he said.
McKeague said he was "guardedly optimistic" that North Korea would agree to the return of more remains and also to joint recovery operations with the U.S. at former battlefields and prison camps.
Byrd cautioned that, "at this point, at least, there's no way to tell" how many more sets of remains the North Koreans might already have in their possession.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com.