Many stories to recover by scientists

Published 12:40 am Sunday, September 6, 2009

They always called him “Peewee.” I never knew my great-uncle’s given name.

He was a hero to the family — my grandmother’s youngest brother. He volunteered for duty in World War II, shortly after Pearl Harbor, as did so many young men. He was a pilot. A good one, from what my grandmother said.

She last received a postcard from Uncle Peewee before he took off from an undisclosed airport in England. “I am headed across the channel,” he wrote. Then he lapsed back into family matters.

Uncle Peewee, like so many others, never returned from the mission. His body was never found. His family was left wondering what happened.

My grandmother wrote letter after letter, asking for some information about him. She was convinced he survived.

She died about 10 years ago and with her, the last survivor of 14 brothers and sisters, so did the search for Uncle Peewee.

It was with much interest, then, I stumbled on a story written in The New York Times by Elisabeth Bumiller about a Defense Department team of anthropologists who are digging up old World War II battle sites in Europe and in the Pacific.

These guys are searching for the remains of World War II soldiers. They decide on excavation points, based on stories they get from witnesses of great battles fought on the European continent or on the islands dotted about in the Pacific Ocean.

Bumiller uses an example of an American bomber shot down by German fighter planes during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. The bomber crashed in a cow pasture in Bauler, Germany. The pilot’s body was never found.

The Defense Department’s team of forensic anthropologists got their cues on where to dig from Hermann Reuter, a 77-year-old farmer, who at age 13 had seen the crash.

The anthropologists found shreds of a parachute, a piece of a leather glove and a small piece of what the scientists think might be a human bone.

It’s possible to identify the pilot now through DNA testing. If this is a bone. If the DNA testing works, the family will receive notification.

Interestingly, now we know a portion of the story, according to Bumiller. We know the pilot died in a Martin B-26 Marauder. The plane had taken off from a base in France to bomb a viaduct in Ahrweiler, Germany. There were six bodies on board. Two of the crew members parachuted out and became German prisoners of war. Four died in the crash. Three bodies were recovered.

That day on the Battle of the Bulge, America lost 39 B-26s in the area. Bumiller says 19,000 Americans died during the six-week campaign.

The work to recover this one body in this single plane that crashed more than 60 years ago is slow and painstaking. The anthropologists take buckets of dirt or mud and pour them on screens. Then they hose off the dirt. The “stuff of interest” gets caught on the screens. So far, says Bumiller, molten pieces of air craft, .50-caliber bullets used in the plane’s machine guns and pieces of boot.

It is the stories that are most important from these finds. There are so many stories and so many families waiting to know — about 74,000 still missing from Europe and the Pacific.

I only wish my grandmother had lived so long. She might have had hope. Maybe other families