Uncovering a WWII P-47 Thunderbolt — and a minor mystery

By MATT MILLHAM | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 21, 2014

STOCKSTADT AM RHEIN, Germany — Three hours into the excavation of a crashed American World War II fighter, more than a dozen volunteers and World War II hobbyists were picking through the dirt at the bottom and edges of a growing hole in a farm field. They’d already pulled up hundreds of rounds of ammunition, parts of the downed P-47 Thunderbolt’s engine and scores of pieces of mangled aluminum.

But they hadn’t found the pilot.

“Mysterious,” said Uwe Benkel, the researcher who organized the excavation. But not, he said, entirely unusual.

The crash site is less than 10 miles southwest of Darmstadt, a city all but destroyed by Allied bombing during the war. Other cities in the area were targeted in the bombing campaign as well, and numerous Allied and German aircraft were shot down or crashed in the fighting.

Soon after the planes crashed, Benkel said, locals usually scavenged them for scrap. If the remains of aviators were found, they were typically buried. Often, there’s not much left.

That was partly true of the Thunderbolt Benkel and his team of volunteers dug up Saturday. The plane was large for its time — 8 tons when fully loaded. All that was left of the wreck — minus 400-some rounds of ammunition found with the debris and taken away by a German explosive ordnance disposal company — was piled into a wooden cart and pulled away by a small sport utility vehicle.

Still, “we were surprised today to find so many pieces that are still left of this aircraft,” Benkel said.

Especially surprising, he said, was the discovery of a roughly 2-foot-by-3-foot section of the plane’s skin on which part of a distinctive American star was still clearly visible.

The P-47 was initially the only long-range offensive fighter available to the Allies in Europe. It was popular with pilots due to its rugged airframe, which could take extreme punishment and still keep flying, its powerful turbocharged engine and massive firepower in the form of eight .50-caliber machine guns.

The plane dug up Jan. 18 was apparently forgotten by the people of Stockstadt Am Rhein, a small town flanked by farm fields and the Rhine River.

Benkel said the farmer who owns the field where the plane was recently rediscovered did wonder when he occasionally found pieces of aluminum, but he just threw the scraps away and never alerted authorities.

Alexander Schneider, an amateur historian and metal detecting enthusiast, said he stumbled on the site by accident in the summer of 2009.

At the time, according to Schneider, most of the local fields were baked hard, but one had been recently worked. He chose that field to sweep with his metal detector simply because it was the easiest place to dig.

He found pieces of aluminum and plexiglass from the plane’s canopy first, then bigger parts, including a piece of one of the plane’s machine guns and a pair of metal propeller blades nearly as tall as he is.

Schneider said he was scared off the site after police came to his house to question him about his finds and tell him he’d been trespassing on private property.

About a month ago, though, he contacted Benkel, whose recent unearthing of a German World War II fighter plane made local headlines.

With permission this time, Schneider was back at the site of his discovery, working alongside volunteers as they brought hundreds of twisted and broken pieces of the past back into the light of day.

Some pieces of the plane’s aluminum skin had holes that Benkel said suggested it had been shot down by anti-aircraft fire.

There were, however, no bones and few signs of the doomed plane’s pilot. A parachute buckle and a scrap of leather that might have been part of his jacket were all that was left to suggest he might have gone down with his Thunderbolt.

Benkel said he should be able to identify who was at the controls from bits of recovered evidence. Paint on parts of the tail suggest the Thunderbolt belonged to the 83rd Fighter Squadron of the 78th Fighter Group. Using serial numbers on various parts, he’ll comb through war records to identify the exact plane and its pilot.

“Then we’ll see what we find out about the pilot,” Benkel said, “if he was killed, if he made it by parachute or if he’s still MIA (missing in action).”

Twitter: @mattmillham

Volunteers dig and sift through the soil Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, for pieces of wreckage from an American Thunderbolt fighter that crashed in a field in Stockstadt am Rhein, Germany, during World War II.