September 6, 2009 Teams Seeking Remains Dig Back to World War II By ELISABETH BUMILLER BAULER, Germany — At the start of the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, an American bomber was shot down by German fighter planes and sent into a fiery, nose-first crash in a cow pasture here. The pilot’s body was never found. Almost 65 years later, on a recent late summer day, a 10-member Defense Department team was in the same pasture, searching through mounds of excavated mud for a trace of the airman. The group had already unearthed shreds of a parachute and part of a leather glove when one of the team’s forensic anthropologists, Allysha Powanda Winburn, found a crucial clue to the mystery: a small piece of what she called “possible osseous remains,” or potential human bone. The real mystery, at least to the 77-year-old farmer who witnessed the crash at the age of 13, Hermann Reuter, was the group of Americans who had turned up in the pasture near his home in search of the pilot. “Why after such a long time?” he asked, perplexed. As nearly 200,000 United States troops fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, a little-known unit is engaged in the herculean and at times quixotic task of trying to account for more than 84,000 Americans still missing from the nation’s previous wars. Most of the effort has focused on those lost in Vietnam, but under pressure from families, the military has paid new attention in the past two years to a vast majority of the missing — some 74,000 — still unaccounted for in Europe and the Pacific during World War II. The effort is a powerful part of the military culture to “bring everyone home,” no matter how elusive the goal. “We maximize the resources we have, both personnel and money,” said Johnie E. Webb, the deputy commander of the 400-person unit, called the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, based at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. “That’s the best we can do until somebody says, ‘We’re going to give you the resources to do more.’ ” The new focus on World War II comes after years of attention to soldiers who were unaccounted for in the 1960s and 1970s in the jungles of Southeast Asia. “Vietnam had advocates,” said Lisa Phillips, the president of the four-year-old World War II Families for the Return of the Missing. “This was an older generation, and they didn’t know who to turn to.” Now, time is running out in Europe, where many elderly witnesses and local historians, crucial in helping to locate crash sites, are dying or already gone. There are other hurdles in Washington, where the Pentagon devotes a sliver of its annual budget, $55 million out of a half trillion dollars, toward the search. Although the teams identify more than 70 of the missing each year, at that rate it will take 500 years to find all of the 35,000 whom the Pentagon classifies as potentially “recoverable.” Many thousands of the others were lost at sea. To the Defense Department teams, staffed by anthropologists and military veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, the meaning of the mission lies not in the numbers but in individual lives. “I think that goes toward answering, ‘Well, you’ll never get finished so why bother to start at all?’ ” said Andrew Tyrrell, the other anthropologist working in the cow pasture. “It’s not necessarily all about finishing. While it’s important to have that as an ultimate goal, what’s also important is that the stories of all of these people get remembered.” The Pentagon would not reveal the name of the lost pilot because his relatives were unaware of the search, Mr. Webb said, and there were fears of getting their hopes up. But if any remains are identified — in many cases through advances in DNA testing that extract samples from shards of bone — the family will be contacted and the pilot will be given a full military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. For now, the Defense Department will say only that the pilot died in a Martin B-26 Marauder on a terrible day for the Allies. The plane was on its way from a base in France to bomb a viaduct in the German town of Ahrweiler, but was ambushed and never reached its target. There were six on board: two crew members who parachuted out and were captured by the Germans and released after the war; and four who died in the crash, three of whose bodies were recovered. The plane was one of 39 B-26s lost in the area on that day alone. In all, an estimated 19,000 Americans died during the six-week Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, the bloodiest fighting of the war. The military team has been searching the pasture since early August and is to remain until mid-September. They are surrounded by wooded hills and volcanic lakes in this idyllic hiking region on the border with Luxembourg, but they spend their days pouring buckets of thick mud onto quarter-inch screens, then hosing them down to catch their finds: molten bits of aircraft, a piece of a boot, hundreds of .50-caliber bullets for the plane’s 11 machine guns. At sites in the Pacific, some have found family photographs and wedding rings. The work is monotonous, but members of the team, who have had multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and expect in many cases to return there, say they have developed a kinship with the pilot they never knew. “It’s the same family essentially going back for our own,” said Capt. Melissa Ova, the team leader, who served in Iraq in 2007. At times the work is maddeningly slow. Last week in another village in what was once East Germany, a different team was trying to locate a B-24 bomber with nine Americans aboard, six still missing, which had been shot down in February 1944. An elderly witness said the plane sank in a boggy field near a river, so Staff Sgt. Kurtis Witt, a Marine who had three tours sweeping roads for explosive devices in Iraq, spanning 2004 to 2008, spent two hours tromping through tall grass with a magnetometer — only to be told afterward by Kristina Giannotta, the historian leading the team, that she had just spoken to a 90-year-old woman in the village who said the plane had gone down in a completely different field. By day’s end, four more witnesses had put the bomber in four other areas. “You can ask people two hours after they saw something and they’ll have different stories,” Dr. Giannotta said. “After 65 years it’s like they saw a purple rainbow.” But to Captain Ova the frustrations are worth it. “For me, it’s a comfort to know that if something happens, somebody will come get me, eventually,” she said.