A shift for POW/MIA recovery

The agency in charge of missions plans to partner more with private companies

By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser (Tribune News Services) | Published: August 16, 2015

A contract with an archaeology company to recover the remains of the last missing American prisoner of war from Stalag Luft III, the German camp made famous in the movie “The Great Escape,” represents a shift in how the Pentagon goes about repatriating missing war dead.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, with the bulk of its effort in Hawaii, inked a $129,486 sole-source contract with Ohio Valley Archaeology Inc. for the investigation and recovery of World War II bombardier 1st Lt. Ewart T. Sconiers.

“The normal course of action for recovery missions has been for Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), now DPAA, to send a government recovery team to do this type of work,” the U.S. General Services Administration said in a rationale for the contract. “DPAA has determined for this particular recovery mission, and most likely more recovery missions in the future, it would be much more cost-effective for the government to have a contractor perform the recovery.”

The contract runs from Aug. 1 of this year through Oct. 30, with the actual investigation and recovery expected to take 36 days. A separate contract for a Germany investigation is under review, DPAA said.

“This is a shift for DPAA,” the agency said of the two contracts. The new paradigm calls for more paid and unpaid partnerships with the private sector to increase recoveries and identifications.

“It’s still very early in the process, but we believe leveraging private-sector capabilities will enhance the ability to complete DPAA’s mission and produce efficiencies in the total process,” Maj. Natasha Waggoner, a DPAA spokeswoman, said in an email.

The Pentagon ordered the MIA effort to be reformed after an internal report was leaked to the press in 2013 in which Paul M. Cole, then a scientific fellow working at JPAC, said the “intelligence” (J2) section spent lavishly on luxury hotels and fine dining on trips to Europe that yielded paltry results.

Recoveries to make a congressionally mandated 200 identifications a year faltered, with then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel noting that just 70 MIAs were identified in 2013.

DPAA, with a new $85 million lab and office building at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, used smaller paid contracts in the past to assist with “parts” of the mission, it said.

It also had unpaid working agreements with organizations such as the nonprofit History Flight Inc., which just returned to DPAA 35 complete Marine casualties and four partial remains it recovered from the 1943 Battle of Tarawa in the South Pacific.

DPAA now says it wants to formalize public-private partnerships with groups such as History Flight and “make them more mutually beneficial and expand them.”

Sconiers, a native of Florida, was on the B-17 bomber Johnny Reb Jr. when it was shot down Oct. 21, 1942, during a raid on a U-boat base in Lorient, France. He was captured and taken to Stalag Luft III in German-occupied Poland, according to a family website devoted to efforts to locate him.

During initial tunneling efforts — which later led to the escape of 76 men, an effort made famous in the 1963 film “The Great Escape” — Sconiers worked security for Lt. Col. Albert P. Clark, the senior American officer of the camp, his family said.

About 14 months after his capture, Sconiers was reported to have slipped on ice, may have suffered a concussion, developed complications and was taken to a reserve hospital in what is now Lubin, Poland, where he died Jan. 24, 1944. He was buried by Clark and others in a POW section of a municipal cemetery used by the hospital.

In 1948 the American Graves Registration Service couldn’t locate his remains, and his mother, father and sister died convinced he had been shot, perhaps trying to escape, and was thrown into a mass grave, never to be found, his family said.

The U.S. military reopened the case in 2006, and the former JPAC conducted an unsuccessful excavation in 2011. The military determined that it couldn’t proceed without further scientific information, said Sconiers’ niece Pam Whitelock.

“We asked, If we were to send an archaeologist over to conduct a geophysical survey, would that be of help, and would you interface with him? And they (JPAC) said yes,” Whitelock said.

The General Services Administration says the company used by the family, Ohio Valley Archaeology, conducted that survey in 2012 at what is now known as Allies Park. All above-ground indications of the cemetery had been removed during the postwar Soviet occupation of Poland.

Using ground-penetrating radar, magnetometers and other equipment, Ohio Valley “was able to identify two specific burial areas that most likely contain the remains of 1st Lt. Sconiers,” the GSA said.

Due to Ohio Valley’s expertise and knowledge of the case, it was considered the only possible candidate for the contracted recovery mission now underway.

“My family did everything they could” to locate Sconiers’ grave, Whitelock said. Now the prospect of bringing home the World War II aviator is closer than ever.

“I think for families, that’s what it’s all about — you want them home, and there’s a burial spot that’s been waiting for him all these years next to my grandma,” Whitelock said.

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