Donna MacGregor has seen death. As a forensic anthropologist, police officer and Army reservist, she’s seen it all. The UQ alumnus studies skeletons. It can be shocking, sometimes chilling, but always fascinating.
For more than 70 years they’ve waited. More than 2000 missing soldiers, with no known graves, casualties of Australia’s three-year campaign in the Pacific.
They were young men. Some just boys. And they never got to say goodbye.
Seventy-two years after the fighting ended in 1945, and thousands of Australians lost their lives, Unrecovered War Casualties – Army (UWC–A) is helping to identify those brave soldiers and give them the dignified farewells they deserve.
Donna MacGregor (Bachelor of Science (Honours) ’94) is an Army reservist and the only forensic anthropologist in the Army. Her role is to read skeletal remains to help determine identities.
In her day job, she’s a lecturer at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) teaching anatomy and forensic anthropology, having previously worked for 10 years with the Queensland Police.
“It’s a long, complicated process and the shortlist of identities could be hundreds of people.
“A forensic anthropologist’s role is to study the skeletal remains to provide biological profiles, which then starts a shortlist of those who are missing. Genealogists, biologists and investigators will then try to match family reference samples.
“It’s difficult because these soldiers have been buried for 70 years, and some family lines no longer exist.”
UWC–A also conducts investigations in countries like France, Belgium, Turkey, Timor and Malaysia, and MacGregor has travelled with the team searching for missing Australian soldiers from World War II and Vietnam conflicts.
“Last year, I was part of a team that brought home the remains of 33 Australians from the Terendak Military Cemetery in Malaysia, a burial site for soldiers who served in the Vietnam War,” MacGregor said.
“We were in the hangar at the RAAF airbase at Richmond in New South Wales with the families when the coffins arrived. They were direct relatives – husbands, wives, children.
“To see the emotion was amazing because the families had been petitioning to have them brought home for a long time. When you see how it affects families, it is quite rewarding.
“As an anthropologist, I don’t often interact with the families. The investigators are the points of contact. But it’s nice to know that the work you do makes a difference.”
Despite a career spanning more than two decades, MacGregor is still fascinated by what bones can reveal about how a person lived and died.
“Bones tell us so much, from ancestry to sex, age and stature,” she told Contact while studying radiographs in a teaching laboratory.
“We might be able to assess whether the deceased had any metabolic diseases, or whether they had a healed injury. We can also look at traumas and any anomalies.
“If you have a radiograph to compare against, that can assist towards identification. It can all depend on the quantity of remains. Sometimes we might only get a few fragments of bones; other times we might get a complete skeleton.
“Over the past few years we have seen a vast increase in the access to computer tomography (CT) technology and this has allowed us to develop a lot of new techniques.
“We are able to see into bones more deeply, rather than just observing their surface. We can better understand bone development and healing, and see the internal structures that reveal more about age.”
MacGregor never dreamed of a career in forensics or examining dead bodies when she began her science degree at UQ in the early 1990s.
“I went to UQ with the aim to pursue maths and chemistry teaching,” she said.
“I was soon exposed to all of the sciences, including anatomy and physiology, and I was hooked. Shocked at first, but completely fascinated.
“From the outset, you’re dealing with human cadavers. It’s part of the teaching process to understand three-dimensional structures and variation.
“Part of that process is realising you are working with deceased people who have donated their bodies, but you need to build some emotional separation into it.
“During my postgrad years, one of my supervisors and lecturers, Dr Wally Wood, ran forensic programs. He was doing a bit of work with the police and that sparked my interest.”
MacGregor joined the Queensland Police Service in 2000 and spent three years as a general duties officer before moving into the forensic services branch, where she worked until 2010.
“I valued those early years in general duties as I learnt to appreciate how hard police officers work and how difficult the job can be,” she said.
“There are great risks that come with being a police officer in general duties. When I moved into forensic services, I was coming along after the incident and not dealing with the frontline responses and risks.”
MacGregor stepped away from full-time police duties in 2010 to pursue teaching, but is still a sworn officer and works part-time with the Queensland Police.
She is on call when skeletal remains are found.
One of the biggest investigations she was involved in with Queensland Police in recent years was that of missing Sunshine Coast boy, Daniel Morcombe.
The 13-year-old was abducted and murdered in 2003 and the case remained open until a breakthrough arrest in 2011. MacGregor was part of the team that finally recovered and
identified Daniel’s remains.
“The jobs that have stayed with me a little bit longer are the ones that involve children – not just the case of Daniel,” MacGregor said.
“Adults can sometimes be victims of their own circumstances, but children are just innocent. They are trusting and it hurts to think what people can do.
“With Daniel, it was nice to be part of the team that found him and gave him back to his family.
“That’s what any case is about. It’s about trying to bring closure to the families.
“Some families are out there looking for years and years, and I can’t begin to imagine what that would feel like.”
MacGregor admits that her career choice might seem sombre, and at times grisly, but she feels lucky to have so much variety in her working life.
“Having the policing background equipped me well for the Army because battlefields can be similar to crime scenes in terms of the complexity and time associated with examining the sites,” she said.
MacGregor teaches more than 130 students in her university role and has worked in PNG during 2017 over several field activities with UWC–A.
“It depends on where remains are reported, but we have worked in areas related to the Kokoda campaign. We’re typically working in jungle conditions. Some areas of PNG are very remote,” MacGregor said.
According to UWC–A, more than 2000 World War II soldiers are still unaccounted for in PNG.
“These soldiers gave their lives for their country and deserve to be honoured and laid to rest. And their families deserve that closure,” MacGregor said.
And so they wait.
For more information about Unrecovered War Casualties – Army, visit army.gov.au/our-work/unrecovered-war-casualties.