JPAC team on mission to recover remains of U.S. servicemembers missing from WWII
Stars and Stripes August 31, 2009
Not long after lunch, they laid themselves to rest in a soft green pasture, this 10-person team that traveled from the far side of the globe to probe for the remains of a man missing for more than six decades.
“We’re not here for ourselves,” Army Sgt. 1st Class Ron Baker says shortly before the pastoral pause. “We’re here for the families of the veterans of past conflicts who are missing in action.”
Baker, a veteran of three combat tours, isn’t one to mince words. While Baker values what he and the others are doing in this cow pasture in western Germany, his soul seems to be elsewhere, Iraq and Afghanistan in particular. You can sense it in his mud-speckled face, and though reluctant to admit as much at first, Baker eventually does.
“They know where my heart is,” he says. “It’s over there.”
Now he and the rest of this team, which includes two civilian anthropologists from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, are waiting a safe distance away for a military explosives expert to examine a suspicious metal object at the site.
About this time each year, JPAC sends a group from its headquarters at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, to Europe for a month or two.
They come to investigate, search and, if possible, recover the remains of U.S. servicemembers missing from World War II, of which an estimated 35,000 are categorized as recoverable. While most recovery missions are in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands or Luxembourg, teams also have been sent to countries such as France and Hungary.
This year there are three teams. One is scoping out future dig sites. The other two are laboring to recover the remains of two pilots who went missing in the fall and winter of 1944. Each recovery team consists of 10 individuals.
“It’s so satisfying when you actually find something, but there are a lot of times when you don’t find anything,” says Thomas Sprague, a forensic anthropologist and former Army doctor.
One of the intangible benefits of JPAC’s mission is that servicemembers come to realize that if anything were to ever happen to them, they know their country will do everything possible to find and bring their remains home.
“Absolutely. No doubt about it,” Sprague says. “They understand they are not going to be left behind no matter what happens until they are home. That’s absolutely true.”
Sprague is touring the second site near the town of Hillesheim, a wooded area about 30 minutes from the pasture. Rain has compelled Sprague and his team leader, Army Sgt. 1st Class Cleveland Lassiter, to cancel the day’s work before it even gets started. But for Lassiter and Sprague, the rest of their team is back at a local hotel.
“Those piles of dirt over there,” Sprague says, pointing to a few nearby mounds, “it’s all stuff we have sifted through, and we only found a few bits and pieces (of evidence).”
At this stage, JPAC officials usually don’t discuss if they have unearthed any human remains. That comes later, back in Hawaii, where potential remains are tested, analyzed and reviewed by other anthropologists. It’s an exhaustive process that entails layers of scrutiny and a lot of lab work, including DNA testing.
Sprague’s team has found a number of items that seem to confirm a plane crash. The pieces range from shards of the cockpit canopy glass and bits of a parachute to part of a fuel pump and the pilot’s leather headgear.
“We were [sweeping] with metal detectors and digging up all the metal hits,” Sprague says. “One of them was the snap on the helmet.”
It’s basic detective work. The crew, for instance, found a bracelet buried at the base of a nearby tree. While the jewelry probably belonged to a woman, pilots often carried small mementos into combat. On the other hand, Germans enjoy taking walks in the woods, so maybe someone dropped it by accident.
“We treat these as crime scenes,” Sprague says of the site.
This scene is located just off a dirt track near a two-lane road. The site, like the other being worked, has been combed over at least a few times, Sprague said. In the late 1940s, the Army Graves Registration Service sent teams to both areas and local historians have visited the crash sites as well.
Several years ago, a German historian erected a cross at Sprague’s site that bears the name and unit of the F-5E pilot who might have crashed there. It reads: 1st Lt. Donald B. Bayne, 7th Photo Group, 13th Photo Squadron.
Army Air Corps records indicate the doomed single-seat aircraft was one of four reconnaissance planes flying in formation toward Mainz, Germany, on Sept. 16, 1944. Sprague says there is no evidence the plane was shot down. Instead, Bayne’s fellow pilots deduced he got lost in the clouds and never recovered.
“Usually you find all kinds of things at a World War II (crash) site because the planes didn’t fly as fast as the Vietnam-era planes, but this thing clearly just disintegrated,” Sprague says. “There was hardly anything identifiable, even shortly after the crash of the aircraft. It was completely blown to bits when it crashed.”
The same is true of the B-26C that is believed to have crashed at the other site outside the tiny municipality of Bauler.
Andrew Tyrrell and Allysha Powanda Winburn, the two JPAC anthropologists on the scene, wouldn’t identify the missing pilot or any of the other five men who were aboard. Two of the crewmen managed to parachute safely from the plane, they say. The others perished in the December 1944 crash. Three of the four have long since been recovered, but not the pilot.
The plane he was flying was part of a formation of bombers heading for Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, where in the nearby pinot noir vineyards the Nazis were using an underground facility and slave laborers to produce armaments.
Standing near a 2-meter deep pit her team is excavating with a backhoe, Winburn extends both arms out and imitates an airplane in a death spiral to demonstrate the crash.
“A lot of the people who witnessed it were kids, because there was a schoolhouse nearby,” says Winburn, who is overseeing her first dig. “To a 6-year-old boy, it’s like the coolest thing in the world if a plane crashes in your schoolyard. All these kids ran out. It’s just emblazoned in their memory because it was horrific, sad, scary.”
Off to the side, several U.S. servicemembers are using high-pressured hoses and screens to break up clumpy masses of claylike soil. The work is tedious and slow and messy, and yet it’s imperative they focus. A small bone fragment or a tooth could go a long way toward bringing a degree of closure to the case at hand.
“It’s (more) mental because you are sitting at the screens all day,” Army Sgt. Kelly Burkhart, a combat cameraman by trade, says the following day.
He and Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Jayme Ryan Frianeza, a hospital corpsman, say there is a big difference between fieldwork in Europe and those conducted in Southeast Asia, where most JPAC teams operate. For both of them, it’s their first dig in Europe.
“It’s a different type of physical strain,” Frianeza says as he, Burkhart, Baker and the others wait in the field for the ordnance expert to examine the suspicious object. In the Pacific theater, “you climb mountains, dig holes by hand and (dry) screen the dirt.”
A half-hour later, the team leader, Air Force Capt. Melissa Ova, decides to send her charges back to the hotel and call it a day. It’s taking longer than anyone expected to resolve the ordnance issue, so she decides maybe it’s best to start anew tomorrow.