National Guard soldier charged and banned from National Archives over taking of WWII dog tags
By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 18, 2019
AUSTIN, Texas — The dog tags of soldiers killed in two World War II plane crashes had been missing from the National Archives for several years but were seized recently from the Virginia home of a National Guard sergeant who previously volunteered to identify the remains of other missing troops.
Robert Rumsby, 29, a Fredericksburg resident, admitted he took the dog tags. Rumsby said his mission was to give the dog tags to the dead soldiers’ families, whom he met while researching the plane crash that killed his great uncle during World War II. He also stole the dog tag of one of his wife’s relatives, who died in a separate crash during World War II.
“I think the intent was there. I think the approach was wrong. Even at the time, I knew the approach was wrong,” he said. “I had taken four identification tags from those record groups specifically for families I knew would treasure them.”
Rumsby said he is scheduled to appear in a federal court May 29 on misdemeanor charges for taking the dog tags while conducting research at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Md. He also said he and his wife, Brittany Rumsby, have been banned temporarily from the archives. She has not been charged with a crime but is listed in the affidavit for being with him on the day that he stole the dog tag of her relative. But Robert Rumsby said she did not know of the theft and plans to appeal her ban from the archives.
A spokeswoman with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Maryland said she could not discuss the case against Rumsby because the charges against him are sealed.
Despite his legal entanglement, Rumsby said he still believes it is a family’s right to take ownership of a servicemember’s dog tags once remains have been identified and is now looking for legal means to return the stolen tags to the families. Part of his argument stems from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s policy to return any items found with remains as they are located and identified.
It’s the policy of the DPAA — the arm of the Defense Department tasked with finding remains of servicemembers, identifying who they are and locating living relatives — that when remains are identified, any items found with the remains proven to be the servicemember’s are given to the next of kin, said Sgt. 1st Class Kristen Duus, the agency’s spokeswoman. These items can include old photos, identification tags, watches, eyeglasses and wallets.
Last year, the agency retrieved 55 boxes of remains from North Korea. In those boxes, one dog tag was recovered and was presented in August to the son of that soldier.
“Once they are the property of the family, they can decide to keep or donate them to archives, museums, et cetera,” Duus said.
But sometimes, items at the National Archives go missing.
Officials at the Inspector General’s Office at the National Archives said no statistics were readily available about how often items are stolen, but it is an “unfortunate reality.”
A section of National Archives website lists dozens of items missing now. They include eight items related to President George Washington, target maps for the 1945 atomic bomb drops in Japan over the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and three letters pertaining to President Ulysses S. Grant’s time as a general officer in the Army.
National Archives IG officials estimate about five search warrants are requested per year to retrieve missing items.
The dog tags that Rumsby stole belonged to Airmen Albert J. Whitus, James F. McKee and John E. McKenzie, according to the archives IG’s office, which filed an affidavit for a search warrant of Rumsby’s home with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Rumsby also took the tags of 1st Lt. Theodore R. Ream, his wife’s great uncle, who died in a separate plane crash during World War II.
The tags of Whitus and McKenzie were located in Rumsby’s home when the search warrant was executed April 4. They were on display on Rumsby’s mantle with items from the plane crash and a photo of the crew, he said.
“I held on to them for many years and never really got around to finding the relatives to see if they were still interested,” Rumsby said. He checked out the box at the archives containing the dog tags in 2015, according the affidavit.
Ream’s tag was found on display in a shadow box in the home of Rumsby’s grandmother-in-law and was returned to the archives, he said. The National Archives’ website lists Ream’s tag as one of nine still missing after being stolen from their stacks by French historian Antonin DeHays. In April 2018, DeHays was sentenced to 364 days in jail for stealing at least 291 dog tags, among other items, from the archives and selling them for a profit of more than $40,000.
Rumsby said he gave McKee’s dog tag to two of the airman’s nephews, though the men were contacted by investigators and the tag also was returned to the archives following the Rumsby search warrant.
“I kept them away from the details,” Rumsby said about whether the other families knew how he came into possession of the dog tags. “They didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell them. I didn’t want to put them in that kind of position. Even my wife didn’t know.”
Robert Workman, one of McKee’s nephews, spent 23 years in the Marines and the Marine Corps Reserve. He said he had his uncle’s tag on display in a special room of his South Carolina home dedicated to their family’s history of military service.
Workman said having one of his uncle’s original possessions was important to him. It was displayed with other family memorabilia, including a photo of McKee’s widow as she accepted his medals for service while holding the daughter McKee never got the chance to meet. He died before she was born.
“I don’t know what the law is for that and Rob’s the only one I’ve talked to about it. He seems to think we should have it,” said Workman, 69. “I hate for it to be stuck in some drawer somewhere for eternity. I’m hoping there’s some way we can display them again for family history and for the family to keep.”
Rumsby said he never intended to take all the tags related to his great uncle’s crash from the archives because not everyone has the same level of appreciation for the items. He said he also sees there is value to preservation in a public forum such as the National Archives.
“I do value preservation more than having somebody having five seconds of sentimental value and going back to daily life,” he said. “But these also were photographed and could be displayed and catalogued online without even having to go to the archives. That would be a great use of taxpayer dollars.”
All of the dog tags that Rumsby took were collected from Germany at the end of the war as part of the records of Luftgaukommando, the regional German Air Force command that prepared reports on Allied aircraft and aircrews shot down or that crashed, the court affidavit stated.
These files often contain dog tags, military identification cards, immunization records and other items removed by the Germans from Allied personnel killed or captured during the war, and are stored at the National Archives.
Whitus, McKee and McKenzie, as well as Rumsby’s great uncle, Sgt. Donald. W. Sang, were killed July 21, 1944, when the B-24 aircraft called Diana-Mite collided over Germany with another B-24 called Our Baby, according to the affidavit. Nine crewmembers, including Whitus, McKee and McKenzie, on the Diana-Mite were killed. Another man was taken prisoner.
Sang was one of the six crewmembers to die aboard Our Baby. Three others were taken prisoner. Sang’s dog tags were never in the files at the National Archives, the affidavit stated.
Rumsby reviewed the box containing the relics of that crash on June 3, 2015. He was the only person to view that box between inventory checks, which is, in part, how investigators narrowed their search to him. They tracked Ream’s missing tag to Rumsby after he posted a photo of the tag in a shadow box on display at his wife’s grandmother’s house to the website www.findagrave.com.
During Rumsby’s research of his great uncle, which he began while still in high school, he learned Sang helped other crewmembers escape the collision instead of jumping from the aircraft to save his own life. In 2009, he presented this information to the Air Force and Sang posthumously was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Rumsby accepted the award, though he said he still believes it should be upgraded to a Silver Star.
His personal research led him into volunteering his research skills for others. Rumsby had been interviewed previously by Stars and Stripes and the New York Times for his efforts to help identify the remains of servicemembers from World War II.
In 2017, Stripes reported on Rumsby’s work with the M.I.A. Recovery Network to compare mapped coordinates with events, such as specific battles. By clustering data together in various ways, researchers can narrow down the possible matches for remains, then seek out family members still alive and willing to provide DNA samples.
Much of that work was conducted while Rumsby served as an officer in the Army. He resigned his commission to enlist in hopes of one day serving as a guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Rumsby said he’s spent more than 2,000 hours researching and has been directly involved with dozens of identifications, but that all the work has taken a toll him and he no longer actively looks for cases to research.
“It’s burned me,” he said. “I’ve seen while identifications were still in the process and remains are in the lab and families die off. Siblings die in the process of waiting for identification. It’s taken a massive toll on me emotionally and mentally.”
Rumsby said having to return the dog tags has inspired him to pursue getting the items legally returned to the families.
A shadow box honoring the service of Airman Theodore Ream on display in the home of Robert Rumsby's wife's grandmother featured a dog tag that he took from the National Archives in College Park, Md. The posting of this photo online helped lead investigators with the National Archives to Rumsby and four missing World War II-era dog tags.