Across Europe, time conspires against the search for World War II dead

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France ?? The gray wall of the missing rises above Omaha Beach, engraved with the names of lost troops in World War II and the melancholy mystery of “comrades in arms whose resting place is known only to God” .

Along the wall, located in the American Cemetery here on the Norman Cliffs, bronze rosettes mark soldiers whose remains have been found in the 65 years since the D-Day invasion. But for the large number of Americans who died in the war ?? nearly 73,500 ?? there are few rosettes and thousands of unanswered questions.

As time is running out to resolve the case of the missing soldiers, the United States is sending teams of military researchers to search for the remains of World War II troops, but their resources are limited. Much of the detective work is done by amateur sleuths in Belgium, France and Germany who search for makeshift graves and ghosts of war. Their tools are Google satellite photos, old-fashioned leather shoe surveys, and powerful metal scanners that can detect a 20-foot-deep helmet.

But most important are the memories of elderly villagers looking back to their past, some with sadness about their former allies, others with lingering guilt over the murder of former enemies.

“We may have four or five years left, and then it’s over,” said Fabrice Corbin, founder of Génération Souvenir, a 30-member volunteer group that has been searching for burial sites in the French countryside for five years. of Normandy and located around twenty remains. “The old witnesses and memories will disappear. And without witnesses who remember what happened, it will be very, very difficult.

Amateur historians were instrumental in finding last month the remains of five German soldiers in Bavent in northern France and an American soldier in Saint-Germain-d’Elle, a village taken five times in 1944. by American soldiers. The skeletons of the German soldiers were found with their helmets still in place. In January, the Pentagon announced the identification of the remains of two American soldiers found in the Hürtgen forest in Germany; the American researchers had been led into an old sniping hole by a local amateur sleuth.

“There are thousands of missing soldiers buried in France ?? Australians, Poles, Americans, British, Germans and Africans, ”said Jean Desloges, head of archeology at the DRAC. “Each year, we find around twenty remains. ”

The US military lists around 88,000 soldiers who are still missing from its wars, but the vast majority are World War II servicemen.

A major complaint from the families of these soldiers is that the government’s search efforts are largely focused on those missing from more recent wars, particularly in Southeast Asia.

“With an intelligence and research section of about 66 people, only four are assigned to World War II – one of which has just resigned,” according to Lisa Phillips, president of WWII Families for the Return of the Missing.

The Pentagon has active missions in Vietnam and South Korea, and one planned this year in Germany. But they don’t have the luxury of time as local tomb hunters who use many of the same research methods and range from avid historians who collaborate with authorities to underground collectors who loot artifacts to sell them and then move on. thing.

“Sometimes we are called upon to open sites which have already been emptied of all that can identify remains,” said Colonel Christian Duhr, the military attaché at the German embassy in Paris. “I know there are a lot of collectors who don’t care about the humanitarian aspect, but every ID badge or medal answers a question for a family.

In recent years, a number of elderly French resistance fighters have provided information on secret burial sites, said Julien Hauser, who represents the German War Graves Commission in France, where around 7,000 German soldiers from World War II are missing.

“It’s on their conscience, and they want to talk,” said Hauser, recalling the story of a man who told him he was part of a firing squad of 10 French resistance fighters who lined up to shoot 10 German soldiers and then couldn’t bring themselves to kill.

Elderly witnesses are essential to hunters like Generation Souvenir, whose members begin each search with interviews. Typical was the case of Pierre Crevel, who grew up on a farm in Saint-Jacques-de-Lisieux, Normandy, where a P-51 Mustang crashed on June 10, 1944.

Mr Crevel revealed the location of the plane’s crash in the grasslands and recounted his fleeting glimpse of a pilot on the ground with an unopened parachute, before the arrival of German soldiers.

Working with this information, the volunteers began a search, working in teams of five, one operating the metal detector and the others digging by hand or with industrial equipment ?? taking care to avoid unexploded ordnance.

On the second day of the searches, the hunters found an aircraft license plate and contacted US authorities, allowing them to identify the pilot as Lt. Raymond Phillips, long missing; his remains have not been found.

“People are ready to talk to me because they have nothing to fear from me; I’m not part of the government, ”said Corbin, who founded Génération Souvenir with the aim of exhibiting historical finds in his Norman museum, the Atlantic Wall Museum, a six-story German bunker in Ouistreham.

Although authorities and cemetery officials are wary of collectors, they give credit to groups like Génération Souvenir for researching in a systematic manner that mirrors the techniques of government researchers.

When the remains of American troops are discovered, families have the choice of burying soldiers in American cemeteries in Europe or being buried in their homes.


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