World War II Graves US Military Searches German Battlefields for Fallen Soldiers

Experts with the United States military expend enormous resources to search for the bodies of missing soldiers. A team is currently at work in the northern Eifel Mountains region of western Germany, where tens of thousands of Americans died during World War II.

Denise To heads the JPAC team that is searching for the remains of missing World War II soldiers.
Sabine Bungert

Denise To heads the JPAC team that is searching for the remains of missing World War II soldiers.

"We can make French fries for lunch out of those," jokes archeologist Denise To, pointing to three rows of potato plants on the edge of a field. The leaves have shriveled and turned brown, and a few potatoes sticking out of the ground have already turned green -- high time for the potato harvest.

Nearby, in a field of wheat stubble, the driver of a small excavator is carefully digging a trench into the soil. It looks like a miniature version of a much larger machine visible in the distance as it eats its way through brown coal. The field, which borders the northern Eifel Mountains in western Germany, is where To and her team work. They believe that it harbors the gravesite of an American who crash-landed his burning P-38 "Lightning" during the Battle of Hürtgen Forest.

To and her team are part of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), a special division within the United States Department of Defense. In many places around the world, JPAC teams are searching for American prisoners of war, or POWs, and soldiers missing in action, or MIA.

The people at JPAC have a lot on their plates. According to official statistics, 78,000 Americans are still missing from the World War II era, about 8,100 from the Korean War, 1,800 from the Vietnam War, 120 from the Cold War and one from the 1991 Gulf War. To do its work, JPAC relies on 400 military and civilian employees, an annual budget of about $50 million (€35 million) and the Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) in Hawaii, the world's largest forensic anthropology laboratory. The bones recovered by the JPAC teams are taken to the CIL, and only after anthropologists there have clearly identified them are the families allowed to bury the remains.

One of the 78,000 MIA from World War II was a 20-year-old Texan, whose body was believed to have gone down in a wheat field in the Hürtgen forest. He flew for the 474th Fighter Group, which was based in Florennes, Belgium and provided air support for American ground forces. On Nov. 5, 1944, the Texan pilot was caught in German anti-aircraft fire and his plane burst into flames. At that moment Therese Rick, who was 15 at the time, was hanging up laundry outside. "I saw a plume of smoke coming from the airplane," she says today. "The pilot flew one more loop, and then I heard the crash. I would have liked to run over the plane, but my mother told me not to."

It would have been grim sight. The bodies of those who died in Hürtgen Forest were often left where they had fallen. Therese Rick and her mother were evacuated a few days later, and were thus spared the worst of the battles. Ernest Hemingway, who experienced the Battle of Hürtgen Forest as a war correspondent, wrote remarkable accounts of the conflict. In less then five months, the Americans lost between 22,000 and 32,000 soldiers, or about half as many as would later die in the entire Vietnam War.

'In Hürtgen They Froze up Hard'

The series of battles in the Hürtgen Forest lasted from September 1944 to February 1945. Snipers perched in the trees made every movement a life-threatening gamble. The ground was furrowed with trenches and studded with landmines. And it was cold. "In Hürtgen they just froze up hard; and it was so cold they froze up with ruddy faces," Hemingway wrote in his novel, "Across the River and into the Trees."

But while American literature and the film industry never seem to tire of celebrating other battles, especially the Allied landing in Normandy, relatively few people, besides Hemingway, remember the suffering in Hürtgen Forest. This is not that surprising when one considers that not only did the Americans suffer high casualties there, but they were also relatively unsuccessful. Their goal was to secure the way for an unobstructed advance on the Rhine River. To this end, the Germans had to be driven out of the forests and away from the reservoirs tucked into mountain valleys.

The Battle of Hürtgen Forest

The Battle of Hürtgen Forest

But the Germans knew the terrain all too well. The Rur Reservoir is hidden away, deep in the forests. In February 1945, when all resistance had become pointless, the German troops opened the discharge valves, transforming the Rur River into a wide band of swampy land impregnable for men or tanks. By doing so, they held up the eastward advance of Allied troops for almost two weeks.

But today the sun is shining over the Hürtgen Forest, and To is happy. After spending a week digging exploratory trenches at all angles through the field of wheat stubble, they have finally found their first aircraft parts.

It has not been an easy task. It has been 64 years since the Texan pilot's plane went down in this field, and the eyewitnesses who still live in the area, like Therese Rick, remember a confusing hodgepodge of details. "The plane went down over there, near the road," said one eyewitness. "I remember quite clearly how the airplane crashed into the hill back there," another said. But the two supposed crash sites were almost two kilometers (1.25 miles) apart. "It's just that it was a very long time ago, and they were still kids back then," says To.

With the Help of Amateur Historians

But as elusive as some memories may be, the JPAG team relies heavily on the help of local residents to dig up a handful of bones here in the northern Eifel Mountains each year. Since the program began in 1986, the remains of eight US soldiers have been recovered and identified in Hawaii, and the scientists are currently working on four additional cases. The JPAC searchers have benefited from the fact that amateur historians in the region are well organized. This comes as no surprise, given the many stories they were told by their parents while growing up, stories about tanks discovered in gardens and soldiers' graves in the forest. Besides, many local residents are avid walkers and, during daily walks through the fields and forests with their dogs, they frequently find pieces of shrapnel, old helmets and even the occasional food ration embedded in metal. Everyone knows everyone else in the region's villages, places with names like Strass, Gey and Vossenack, and everyone knows whom to inform when their retriever happens to dig up something unusual from a rabbit hole.

Bernd Henkelmann is one of these people. A retired sergeant major who spent many years working as a trainer in Kentucky, Henkelmann assists the JPAC teams. He introduces people, works as an interpreter during discussions with local residents and serves as a middleman between American and German interests. "You have to be careful what you ask Bernie," says group leader Captain Alexander Vanston. "If you tell him, in jest, that you'd like the evening news to cover the dig, you'll see a field full of TV teams out here two hours later."

Vanston, working from his office in a small hotel room, is in charge of coordinating all JPAC teams currently operating in Germany. In addition to To's team, two other excavation groups are working in the northern Eifel region. In addition, a so-called Investigation Team (IT) is scouting out locations for new excavation sites near the eastern city of Dresden.

The ITs do the advance work, digging through archives, meeting with eye witnesses and negotiating with landowners. Vanston is the point man for all requests and problems his teams encounter. Archaeologist To explains what this can mean: "When I say that I'd like, right here next to the potatoes, a wet washing system for rinsing out the excavated soil, with 25 work stations, he'll build me one."

But this time the soil in the field is dry enough to use rudimentary wire screens to sift through the earth for bones or small pieces of metal. Each member of a JPAC excavation team is highly specialized. A typical team includes an aircraft expert, someone who knows how to defuse bombs, a doctor, a linguist and a forensic photographer. But everyone is required to work with the shaker screens.

For most team members, this is not their first project. Many have already searched for the remains of fellow Americans in Vietnam or Korea. Compared with the work in Asia, the dig in the northern Eifel region is child's play. In Vietnam, in particular, crash sites are often on dangerously steep and slippery slopes, the underbrush is teeming with poisonous snakes and scorpions, and instead of a dry hotel room, team members spend their nights in clammy tents.

The men and women of JPAC see it as their duty to dig up as many of their dead fellow soldiers as possible -- in keeping with the group's motto, "Until they are home."

Despite the huge laboratory in Hawaii, the small army of archaeologists and anthropologists who work there and the logistical feats that JPAC completes around the world every year, its budget is modest compared with the total US military budget. The $50 million (€35 million) that JPAC costs American taxpayers is the equivalent of only three Longbow Apache helicopters, of which the US military has 600 in operation.

But whether archaeologist To will be able take along a crate of the bones of the P-38 pilot to Hawaii this time is still unclear. So far she and her team have only dug up engine parts and the unused ammunition from a machine gun -- and two half-ton bombs. In 1944, eyewitnesses saw the dead pilot lying next to his plane, although this does not mean that To will find his bones there.

It could be that whoever cleared the larger aircraft parts from the field after the war hastily buried his remains. Or perhaps animals did the work. "But at least we'll try," says the excavator, with determination in her voice.

She even knows for whom she is doing the work. The pilot's mother is still waiting, back in Texas. She has spent 64 years hoping for certainty about the fate of her son.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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