This month, an archaeological team is excavating a site in Belgium in hopes of recovering the remains of American airmen whose bomber went missing during the Battle of the Bulge. Their efforts highlight a massive US military mission that is becoming increasingly important as time goes by.
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."
Reconstructing CasualtiesWith each passing conflict, both the number of deaths and MIA soldiers has been reduced, though. The majority of MIA cases are from WWII, followed by some 8,000 in the Korean War, 1,600 in Vietnam and about 125 related to the Cold War.
"This is a testament to how differently war is fought, and to our improved record-keeping and post-conflict recovery efforts," says JPAC spokesman Tucker.
Because of its massive scale and poor record-keeping, JPAC does not actively pursue cases from WWI or before, though it does have a few exceptional cases pending identification. One particularly interesting identification effort involves the Monitor, a ship that fought in an important Civil War battle that most American schoolchildren are familiar with. In 1862, the Monitor battled the Merrimack, a Northern frigate that the South had salvaged and renamed the Virginia, in the first clash between ironclad ships in history. Later that year it sank, but in 2002 the gun turret was raised, and JPAC is now working to identify the remains of two crewmembers who were inside when the vessel went down. They are down to two possible identities for each crewman, Tucker says.
Once remains are recovered, JPAC relies on an arsenal of data and what they claim to be the world's largest forensic laboratory, in terms of staff and scope of work, to aid in identification, which can take years. At the facility at the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, they not only investigate leads and research case files, but oversee constantly evolving DNA and other forensic testing on remains. Military files, dental records, biological profiles, DNA samples from family members and the analysis of personal effects and combat gear all come into play.
"There are so many variables," Tucker says. "We never rely on one line of evidence -- there has to be at least two."
One Plane or Two?
In the case of Hunconscious, the team has witness and military reports, which include the post-war assessment of the site made by the American Graves Registration Command (AGRC) in 1948, when they concluded that the site was where Bank Nite Betty had crashed. According to the reports, after days of fog that had grounded all flights, the weather broke and the 397th Bomber Group sent out two B-26 Marauder bomber formations to destroy a bridge in Eller, Germany. On the way, Bank Nite Betty was thought to have been shot down, but most of the other planes reached the target for a successful mission.
On their way back, however, the B-26's met with heavy anti-aircraft fire and enemy planes. In total, 10 aircraft were downed. Hunconscious was long thought to be among them, but it was the only plane shot down that day that was never found.
But, in 2009, a German hobby historian poking around the site found some goggles, parachute pieces, a bone fragment and a piece of fabric with part of a laundry mark that may correspond to one of the Hunconscious crew members.
"Due to the weather on that December day, the fact that 10 planes were lost around the same time, and a lot of confusion on the ground, an assumption was made that took some 70 years for us to begin clearing up," says archaeologist and recovery leader Jesse Stephen.
The case is particularly complicated because if both planes indeed went down together, possibly colliding before they dropped their bomb loads, the explosion was likely tremendous. The shape and size of the crater at the site corresponds to this theory, but JPAC won't know for sure until they have pieced together all of their newfound evidence.
"With big airplane explosions you get very small fragments of people," says forensic anthropologist Hugh Tuller, standing inside the crater. "AGRC gathered up what they could find back then, but often there were things that they didn't find, and we don't know if what we're uncovering now belongs to the known aircraft or a new aircraft."
The team plans to dig until August, when remains and other artifacts will be shipped to their lab on the Hawaiin island of Oahu, and the final phase of analysis will begin. To maintain objectivity, a separate team will take over the scientific testing, which will include attempting to match DNA with samples taken from crewmember's relatives.
"There is an emotional connection to work like this," says archaeologist Stephen. "We have to make sure we remain unbiased in every way."
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