The last time American soldiers were here, they were fighting for their lives during one of the fiercest battles of the World War II, the Battle of the Bulge. Nearly 70 years later, the only immediate evidence of this, tucked into a hillside in Belgium's densely wooded Ardennes region, is a crater about the size of a backyard pool.
This was long thought to be the location where a twin-engine B-26 Marauder bomber called Bank Nite Betty crashed during the month-long battle to halt Germany's last major offensive of the war. But new information has led the US military to re-examine this assumption, and now the Americans are back. Instead of tanks and bombers, though, they're armed with metal detectors, shovels and sifting screens, searching for the remains of soldiers who didn't return home.
In a wooded area below the crater just outside Allmuthen, Belgium, a small town near the German border, a team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) is engaged in an expansive effort to find evidence of the six crewmembers who were on board Hunconscious, a missing bomber they now believe may also have gone down here in addition to Bank Nite Betty on Dec. 23, 1944.
The planes are believed to have exploded with such force that there is little hope of finding bodies intact.
Flanked by a trickling stream and shaded by tall evergreens, groups of two or three young men are standing at several stations set up to sift through dirt for proof of Hunconscious. Every few minutes, a member of the JPAC team cries out, "metal!" Systematically surveying and excavating 67 years of topsoil is painstaking work, and alerting fellow team members that they've found bits of the wreckage breaks up the monotony, says team leader Matt Wilkes, a Sergeant First Class in the Army.
No Comrade Left Behind
But the JPAC team, which operates under the motto "Until they are home," isn't just finding metal. Occasionally, someone also shouts out "bone!"
"Almost every other day we've found human remains," says Wilkes. "The site is getting bigger every day, and we'll stay until we don't find any more."
The team -- which includes an archaeologist, forensic anthropologist, experts in military ordnance and gear, and even volunteers from the nearby Spangdahlem Air Base -- won't know who the remains belonged to until they go through extensive forensic testing back at JPAC's laboratory and headquarters in Hawaii. But the hope is that, once identified, their discovery will not only be able to clear up the mystery as to where the Hunconscious went down, but also end decades of doubt for the families of its missing in action (MIA) crew.
"We make a promise to our service members never to leave a fallen comrade behind," says JPAC public affairs officer Lee Tucker, who is also on site. "That can't be an empty promise, and this is an extension of that."
Locating and recovering the bodies of more than 83,000 fallen American service members who are still missing from past conflicts is something the US government takes seriously. According to Tucker, the joint task force, which employs about 400 civilians and service members from all of the US military branches, is one of the few Department of Defense programs that hasn't recently been hit by budget cuts.
Spending for 2012 will be close to $100 million, he says, up from some $79 million in 2011. That year, JPAC made 69 identifications, but Congress has asked the mission to increase this to 200 identifications annually by 2015, according to Tucker.
"We are starting to lose the family members of World War II service members, and those from Vietnam, too," says Tucker. "These are people who haven't been given the closure they have so wanted."
In his 2005 book "Soldier Dead: How We Recover, Identify, Bury, And Honor Our Military Fallen," author Mike Sledge explores the historical, social and political reasons that the US military goes to such great trouble to recover the remains of its servicemen and -women, whether it's in the heat of battle or decades later. The need to see and properly bury the dead is a universal theme that has been well-documented throughout history, Sledge writes, but there are several factors that are particularly important from a military perspective.
Sledge cites the need to have a forensic understanding of the circumstances surrounding the death, which can aid in determining whether outlawed weapons, torture or other atrocities may have occurred, for example. There is also the issue of health on the battlefield, which is clearly compromised -- physically and emotionally -- by the presence of decomposing bodies.
In the case of JPAC's work, at least in the context of historical conflicts, Sledge's other three motivating factors in the recovery of military dead carry a particular resonance, though. A funeral, he writes, helps maintain morale among a fallen soldier's comrades, as it "helps dispel the wanton randomness of death in battle." Another consideration in recovering soldiers' bodies is their families, because an important step in the grieving process is accepting the reality of death. "Obviously, the presence of a properly identified set of remains is final proof," Sledge writes. Even if only partial remains can be found, as is often the case with JPAC cases, "funeral rites can still be satisfying to the bereaved family."
Closure is also important from a political perspective, but here things become more symbolically complex. On a surface level, a soldier's body is a physical representation of a single person, and in turn of all members of the military, he writes. But symbolically, this body is also the "physical representative, or envoy, of his nation and, as such, embodies its ideology, political beliefs, and culture." The treatment of military corpses is not only indicative of how a country views its citizens, but also serves to measure the political and human costs of whatever cause they died for. Essentially, they embody the national belief system.
"This need to have the remains fits into our sense of uniqueness and individualism as Americans, and our need to be in control of our military power," Sledge told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We don't want to relinquish control to another party."
But these efforts can also be used as a political tool, Sledge says. While JPAC's work has established a special integrity and confidence in how the US approaches the recovery of its war dead, the fact that so much time and money are spent on this is a "displacement and diversion" of what is truly at stake, he says. "It takes the heat off the question of why soldiers are still dying now."