Crash Site In­ves­ti­ga­tions

A vol­un­teer group helps fund searches for the miss­ing by selling rides in the types of air­craft they once flew.

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - BY DAVID SEARS

ON A COLD DAY in April 2012, a team of his­to­ri­ans, ar­chae­ol­o­gists, sur­vey­ors, foren­sic tech­ni­cians, and po­lice stood on a hill­side near All­muthen, Bel­gium. One of the team mem­bers was a han­dler for Buster, a Labrador re­triever trained to de­tect the scent of ca­dav­ers. A U.S. Army Air Forces B-26 had crashed on the hill 68 years ago, and the team had be­gun ex­ca­vat­ing the site in the hope that Buster could de­tect the re­mains of the World War II bomber’s air­men.

The Depart­ment of De­fense es­ti­mates that 79,000 U.S. per­son­nel who served dur­ing World War II re­main miss­ing to­day. “Ev­ery­body flies MIA flags, but hardly any­one knows or ap­pre­ci­ates these num­bers,” says Mark Noah, who led the team work­ing at All­muthen. To­day, de­spite ad­vances in ca­su­alty ac­count­ing, unan­swered ques­tions still tor­ment many fam­i­lies of MIAS. Their predica­ment has a name—“am­bigu­ous loss”—and the grief can linger across gen­er­a­tions. As one widow ex­pressed it: “No, miss­ing isn’t dead. It’s worse than dead.”

Noah, who flies Boe­ing 767s as a cap­tain for UPS, also op­er­ates History Flight, a non­profit foun­da­tion based in Marathon, Florida, that is com­mit­ted to find­ing miss­ing U.S. ser­vice mem­bers. To help un­der­write its re­search ac­tiv­i­ties as well as raise aware­ness of its mis­sion, History Flight of­fers paid rides aboard three re­stored air­craft: a North Amer­i­can B-25H Mitchell medium bomber, a North Amer­i­can AT-6 Texan ad­vanced trainer, and an N2S Stear­man pri­mary trainer.

Since 2003, History Flight vol­un­teers and con­sul­tants have joined forces with other vol­un­teer groups and co­or­di­nated with the De­fense POW/MIA Ac­count­ing Agency (DPAA) to lo­cate lost ser­vice­men. History Flight has spent over $2 mil­lion, most of it from pri­vate donors, to find and doc­u­ment the re­mains of Amer­i­can MIAS. The idea, says Noah, “took root as we worked on the vintage planes. We were restor­ing air­craft when we should re­ally be re­cov­er­ing the miss­ing crews. We started by just in­ves­ti­gat­ing air crashes,

but now we look for GIS too.”

Noah has as­sem­bled a di­verse team. There is Agamem­non Gus Pan­tel, an ex­pert in pre-columbian ar­chae­ol­ogy who lives in Puerto Rico. Kent Sch­nei­der is a re­tired U.S. For­est Ser­vice ge­ol­o­gist. Paul Sch­wim­mer is a land surveyor and for­mer U.S. Army re­servist who self-de­scribes as “driven.” “My of­fice is the field,” he says. “My real skill is find­ing things, and I’m good at it.”

Per­haps the most in­trigu­ing con­trib­u­tors are the in­ter­species col­lab­o­ra­tion of Paul Dostie and Buster. Dostie, a re­tired Cal­i­for­nia law en­force­ment of­fi­cer, adopted Buster as a puppy. (His wife in­sisted, he says.) Buster, now 11, has a ro­bust sense of smell, de­vel­oped ini­tially for re­cov­ery mis­sions af­ter avalanches and re­fined through suc­ces­sive ex­pe­ri­ence in de­tect­ing dif­fer­ent forms of hu­man re­mains: soft tis­sue, blood, bones, cre­ma­tion ashes, and bone de­com­po­si­tion af­ter 50-plus years. For History Flight ex­pe­di­tions, Buster trav­els in air­liner pas­sen­ger cab­ins; on over­seas trips, he is ac­com­pa­nied by a vet­eri­nar­ian.

Be­cause the foun­da­tion’s fo­cus is on lo­cat­ing men who fought in all the­aters of World War II, its reach is global. Trips to Euro­pean coun­tries—france, Bel­gium, and Ger­many—are bal­anced by ear­lier and on­go­ing mis­sions to re­mote Pa­cific lo­cales with mem­ory-evok­ing names like Palau, Tarawa, and Truk. Dur­ing a trip to Mili Atoll in the Mar­shall Is­lands in 2007, “we re­ally went off the grid,” says Noah. “We flew Air Mar­shall Is­lands to a for­mer Ja­panese airstrip, camped in a beach­front grass hut, and re­turned by fish­ing boat. The en­tire is­land was just in­ter­lock­ing bomb craters with pieces from hun­dreds of Ja­panese air­craft ev­ery­where. We found a B-25 in­tact on the la­goon floor, plus the wreck of an A-24 Ban­shee, the Army Air Forces ver­sion of the SBD Daunt­less.”

History Flight’s visit to the hill­side in All­muthen had its ori­gins in 1990s re­search by Ger­man avi­a­tion his­to­ri­ans Horst We­ber and Man­fred Klein. The two were try­ing to learn more about the loss of 10 Martin B-26 Ma­raud­ers from the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 397th Bom­bard­ment Group dur­ing a De­cem­ber 23, 1944 at­tack

on a rail­road bridge near Eller, Ger­many.

We­ber and Klein even­tu­ally found nine of the 10 crash sites, one of which was in All­muthen, Bel­gium. Field­work de­ter­mined that the All­muthen crash site con­tained the wreck­age of the for­ward fuse­lage of the B-26 Bank Nite Betty (the tail sec­tion likely fell nearby).

The crash site for Hun­con­scious, another 397th B-26 re­ported lost over Bel­gium, re­mained a mys­tery—as did the fate of its six-man crew.

While work­ing in a spruce plan­ta­tion near the Bank Nite Betty site in the fall of 2006, a Ger­man forester af­fil­i­ated with the Air War History Work­ing Group Rhine-Moselle (another vol­un­teer en­tity) found an im­pact crater and a leather frag­ment from what turned out to be the col­lar of an Amer­i­can B-3 fly­ing jacket. The frag­ment bore a laun­dry mark, H-7489. Such marks in­cor­po­rate flight crew ser­vice num­bers, but H-7489 matched no one on Bank Nite Betty’s ros­ter. Records showed in­stead that it be­longed to Sergeant Eric M. Honey­man (ser­vice no. 39037489), a crew­man on Hun­con­scious.

But the promis­ing lead never gained trac­tion. When rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Rhine-moselle group un­cov­ered two long bone frag­ments, they alerted U.S. Army Me­mo­rial Af­fairs Ac­tiv­ity–europe, whose rep­re­sen­ta­tives took pos­ses­sion of the bones and re­ferred the case to DPAA. Though two DPAA his­to­ri­ans who vis­ited the site in early 2007 con­cluded there was enough ev­i­dence “to war­rant fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion,” in­ter­est flagged, other projects in­ter­vened, and years passed.

DPAA, based in Hawaii, spear­heads the mis­sion to ac­count for U.S. MIAS. The agency op­er­ates glob­ally, and its ap­prox­i­mately 400 mil­i­tary and civil­ian per­son­nel are stretched thin. Ac­cord­ing to Johnie E. Webb Jr., DPAA’S deputy to the com­man­der for leg­isla­tive af­fairs and ex­ter­nal re­la­tions, DPAA is lim­ited to dis­patch­ing 10 in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary teams of 10 to 14 mil­i­tary per­son­nel and civil­ian spe­cial­ists at any one time. Con­sid­er­ing DPAA’S re­source con­straints and for­mi­da­ble re­cov­ery goals, pri­or­i­tiz­ing which air­plane crash sites to in­ves­ti­gate is chal­leng­ing. Says Noah: “Ninety-five per­cent of [DPAA] re­sources go to Viet­nam MIA re­cov­ery, which is just five per­cent of the prob­lem.”

Noah’s in­ter­est in the Hun­con­scious MIAS was par­tially trig­gered by read­ing The Dead of Win­ter, a 2005 book by Bill Warnock. A U.S. Air Force vet­eran who served in Ger­many, Warnock co-founded the 99th Di­vi­sion MIA Pro­ject to search for 99th In­fantry Di­vi­sion MIAS from the Bat­tle of the Bulge. The Dead of Win­ter de­tails how Di­vi­sion vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies teamed with foren­sic sci­en­tists and am­a­teur his­to­ri­ans to re­cover the re­mains of 12 fallen com­rades. The 99th MIA Pro­ject seemed a likely Euro­pean part­ner for History Flight, so Noah reached out to Warnock.

Warnock in turn in­tro­duced Noah to two World War II his­to­ri­ans, Jean-louis Seel and Jean-Philippe Speder, both Bel­gian army

vet­er­ans. Seel, now a rail­road sta­tion­mas­ter, and Speder, a wa­ter treat­ment elec­tro-me­chanic, had col­lab­o­rated since their school days by scour­ing World War II bat­tle­fields within driv­ing dis­tance of their homes. They were in­stru­men­tal in re­cov­er­ing all of the 12 99th In­fantry Di­vi­sion MIAS and knew the re­gion well.

In May 2011, ahead of a June re­con­nais­sance trip to Bel­gium, the History Flight team, joined by Seel, Speder, and Warnock, con­vened at the Na­tional Ar­chives in Col­lege Park, Mary­land, to re­search a dozen po­ten­tial cases, in­clud- ing Hun­con­scious. “I call it ‘mi­cro-history’—con­nect­ing with vet­er­ans groups, and then go­ing through ar­chives,” says Noah. “This col­lec­tive re­search yielded af­ter-ac­tion re­ports, de­ceased per­son­nel files, squadron di­aries, miss­ing air crew re­ports, and air­craft-in-dis­tress re­ports.”

History Flight’s two weeks of on-site re­con­noi­ter­ing in June re­vealed that the de­bris field dis­cov­ered five years be­fore by the Ger­man forester had since been clear-cut and was now over­grown with veg­e­ta­tion. The im­pact crater was clogged with 10 to 12 feet of log­ging de­tri­tus and five feet of stand­ing wa­ter. Still, the site held prom­ise, and they de­cided to re­turn.

Af­ter History Flight’s de­par­ture, Seel and Speder con­tin­ued work­ing the All­muthen site through­out the sum­mer. Care­ful vis­ual in­spec­tion soon yielded more ar­ti­facts, in­clud­ing an E6B “whiz wheel,” a cir­cu­lar slide rule, com­plete with leather case.

When the History Flight crew re­turned

History Flight’s work. Af­ter the im­pact crater was drained, the ar­chae­ol­o­gists found U.S. Army Air Forces boots and boot frag­ments. The first 10 inches of ex­ca­va­tion yielded some­thing even more com­pelling: a bone frag­ment sub­se­quently iden­ti­fied as part of a hu­man right tibia. It was enough to sig­nal a halt to the ex­ca­va­tion. In a ges­ture of co­op­er­a­tion, Noah pulled out his cell­phone to call DPAA’S Johnie Webb in Hawaii.

Noah’s once-con­tentious re­la­tion­ship with DPAA has be­come mu­tu­ally pro­duc­tive. “[DPAA] once saw History Flight as in­tru­sive, both­er­some, and an­tag­o­nis­tic,” says Gus Pan­tel. “They now re­al­ize we’re a bona fide, gen­uine ef­fort.”

“Mark has gone be­yond what many other groups do in terms of re­search, anal­y­sis, and field­work,” says DPAA’S Webb. “He has peo­ple with ex­per­tise in var­i­ous dis­ci­plines. They’re well-rounded, and Mark has come to re­al­ize the dif­fi­cul­ties [DPAA faces].” Within days, DPAA rep­re­sen­ta­tives ar­rived at All­muthen. Af­ter History Flight de­parted for other case re­cov­ery sites, sev­eral DPAA teams worked the All­muthen hill for more than 100 days, from late May un­til mid-septem­ber. Webb as­sessed the over­all ef­fort as “very pro­duc­tive. Re­mains were scat­tered over a very large area.” In fact, site work was par­tic­u­larly suc­cess­ful. In July 2014, DPAA con­firmed the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of re­mains for all six Hun­con­scious crew­men and no­ti­fied their fam­i­lies. Re­mains for pi­lot First Lieu­tenant Wil­liam Cook and crew­man Staff Sergeant Mau­rice J. Fevold were buried with full mil­i­tary hon­ors that year. Burial cer­e­monies for the re­mains of three more—honey­man, Arthur Le­favre, and Ward Swal­wel—were sched­uled for Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery last Au­gust.

Seel and Speder as­sisted two of the DPAA teams dur­ing that event­ful sum­mer. “The im­pres­sion that fol­lowed me was the ex­tent of the de­struc­tion,” says Speder. “Ev­ery bit of that B-26 was torn, ripped, twisted or bent.”

Three hun­dred yards from the All­muthen im­pact crater, Seel un­earthed a por­tion of a flak hel­met some­times worn above the leather fly­ing hel­met dur­ing com­bat. The hel­met frag­ment had been bent and had in turn squeezed a por­tion of leather hel­met. In­side were two pieces of hu­man skull. “When you came across such items,” says Speder, “where death had been frozen in time, you are over­whelmed by a feel­ing of deep hu­mil­ity and re­spect.”

History Flight con­tin­ues its search for World War II’S miss­ing. They’ve led nu­mer­ous ex­pe­di­tions to Europe in the last three years. And since 2013, in a mas­sive on­go­ing ex­ca­va­tion pro­ject on the Pa­cific atoll of Tarawa, the team has re­cov­ered the re­mains of at least 120 U.S. Marines.

Mark Noah (left) led an ex­pe­di­tion to Bel­gium, where a B-26 bored a hole into a for­est (top). Re­mains of the bomber’s six-man crew have been re­cov­ered, in­clud­ing those of (left to right) Wil­liam Cook, Franck Lane Jr., Eric Honey­man, and Ward Swal­wel Jr.

Above: A team mem­ber uses a drone to map the crash site, where the B-26 frac­tured into small pieces (left). Be­low: When the team wa­ter-screened mud, they found a com­pass (inset) and other ar­ti­facts, as well as crew re­mains.

History Flight of­fers rides aboard Barbie III, a re­stored North Amer­i­can B-25H.

Re­cov­ered ar­ti­facts in­clude boot frag­ments (op­po­site) and a B-26 tur­ret drive data plate (be­low).

Buster, han­dled by Paul Dostie, pa­tiently worked the All­muthen site.

A skull is re­moved from Tarawa atoll in the Pa­cific.

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