Until They All Come Home: Happy Veterans Day 2013
When one thinks of servicemen who are Missing in Action (MIA), we normally think of the Vietnam War, or perhaps of the Korean Conflict. But there are over 12,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen still missing in the European and Mediterranean theatres of action from World War II. Several weeks ago, we had the rare opportunity to help send one of these heroes home. Here’s how it happened:
In January 1945, American troops moved in to secure a small valley near the town of Dambach after the Germans had been pushed out of France along the border stretching from Metz to Strasbourg. Dambach is located in a typical, lovely Alsatian valley about 45 minutes north of Strasbourg, and is dominated by several high ridges, sloping down from the Vosges mountains. One such ridge is marked by three distinctive rock formations that look like large chimneys, towering above the trees. The valley provides an easy route into Germany, only a few kilometers to the north.
Although things seemed quiet, one hundred and fifty miles to the west the Germans had just mounted a major counter-attack – the Battle of the Bulge – which American forces were still beating back. Fifty miles to the south, American and French forces were still trying to clear the Colmar Pocket of German forces in central Alsace. It was one of the coldest, harshest winters on record, and it was at that moment Hitler ordered another counter-attack, Operation Northwind, designed to take back Strasbourg and northern Alsace.
Elements of the 45th Infantry Division were dug in along the mountain ridges above Dambach guarding the valley approaches when the German forces attacked. The fighting for the ridge-top positions must have been fierce, as the slopes were steep and snowy, and many rocky outcroppings provided cover and concealment for the soldiers on both sides. According to local residents, the ridge-top changed hands several times over the course of the battle, during which many soldiers fell. One, a Private First Class, was later reported to be killed in action. But his body was never recovered, and his name was eventually inscribed on the Wall of the Missing at the American Cemetery at Epinal, in the Vosges Mountains.
Fast forward to sixty eight years later, September 2013; hikers resting beneath the middle of the three chimney rock formations spotted what they thought was a human skull protruding from the ground. They notified the superintendent of a nearby German military ceremony who came to the scene to investigate. When he lifted the skull, he found beneath it a perfectly preserved U.S. Army World War II dog tag, bearing the name of the soldier whose name appears on the wall. He carefully replaced the skull and immediately contacted his counterpart at the Lorraine American Memorial and Cemetery, as well as local authorities. The Joint Prisoner of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC) was also notified and immediately dispatched a team to the site.
On September 9, 2013, the JPAC team arrived on the distinctive ridge in the Vosges and began to meticulously excavate the site. The skull was recovered, and small bits of human remains began to be found, along with unexpended ammunition, buttons, and uniform insignia, including a corroded but clearly recognizable “U.S.” collar insignia. The JPAC archeologist soon uncovered a femur bone, then a lower leg and foot. It was clear to everyone that this site did, indeed, hold the remains of a long missing, but not forgotten, American soldier. Following two days of work, the JPAC team successfully recovered a nearly complete skeleton, which was carefully removed to a local funeral home, pending it’s repatriation to the JPAC laboratory in Hawaii for positive identification.
As I watched the JPAC team at work, I thought about this lone soldier, lying for so long in a grave marked by a tall, distinctive rock formation. The site was carefully located under a large overhang, with the chimney on top, and I imagined how over the years, hundreds of hikers must have stopped to rest in this protected and dry spot, never guessing they were not really alone. Upon close examination, we located a rudimentary cross scrawled in the rock face above the grave, presumably placed there by the men who buried this soldier in what they thought would be a temporary resting place.
How had he been missed for so long? Why wasn’t he recovered after the war, along with the other fallen American servicemen? It would have been impossible to miss his gravesite, located as it was under such a distinctive landmark. I speculated that perhaps the soldier had fallen in the first desperate struggle for the ridge, that his comrades had seen him fall and die, but had not had time to recover him as they fled the German onslaught. Perhaps the Germans, after taking possession of the ridge, had buried the fallen American soldier. If this was the case, then the temporary grave would never have been known of or recorded by the American army.
We will probably never know how this soldier came to rest where he did, or how he was left there for so many years. But what is certain is that thanks to the great work of JPAC and the commitment of our country to assure that we will leave no fallen warriors behind, this soldier is returning home. I know very little about him, except that he was 20 years old and had a wife and child. I wonder if perhaps they are still alive. If they are, I can’t imagine the emotions they will feel when they are notified that their husband and father has been found.
Many thanks to the personnel of JPAC for their hard and arduous work; thanks to the personnel at the Lorraine American Cemetery who coordinated this recovery operation; and thanks to all the local and law enforcement authorities who so graciously hosted our teams and facilitated the return of our soldier to his country.
Happy Veterans Day.
“Until they all come home….”
Evan G. Reade