A Promise of ‘No Man Left Behind’ Leads to a Forest in England - The World News

A Promise of ‘No Man Left Behind’ Leads to a Forest in England

The blackened site of the plane crash, overgrown with rhododendron bushes and hidden in the quiet woodlands of eastern England, had for 80 years been the final resting place of a missing American pilot.

Now, a group led by British archaeologists is carefully searching through the tangled branches, the soil and the mud with a hopeful mission: to find the remains of the pilot, who died during World War II, and bring him home.

Their help has been enlisted by a specialized unit of the Defense Department responsible for finding the remains of tens of thousands of American service members who died as prisoners of war or were considered missing in action.

More than 72,000 Americans are still unaccounted for from World War II, according to the Defense P.O.W./M.I.A. Accounting Agency, or D.P.A.A. That number, however, has been slowly dropping as the agency has found and identified more sets of remains.

“They are still trying to adhere to that promise of ‘no man left behind,’” said Rosanna Price, a spokeswoman for Cotswold Archaeology, the group that is leading the excavation in Suffolk, a county in eastern England. “That’s quite powerful to us.”

Ms. Price said that the group hoped to uncover enough answers to offer closure for the pilot’s surviving relatives. “That’s our motivation: to remember these guys and also to tell their stories,” she said.

In August 1944, the pilot was flying a B-17, the giant bomber known as the Flying Fortress, that was carrying a 12,000-pound load of Torpex, an explosive. The controls failed, Ms. Price said, and the plane crashed into the woodland. The explosives detonated upon impact.

Ms. Price declined to name the pilot, and said that his remains had never been located. Local historians searched the crash site for remnants of the aircraft in the 1970s, she said. The D.P.A.A. did not immediately respond to requests for further details.

Cotswold Archaeology’s search, which began this month and will last six weeks, will be more extensive. The team will excavate a crater at the crash site that is almost 10 feet deep, and will use metal detectors to search a two-acre area nearby divided into smaller grids.

About 60 volunteers, including current and former British military personnel, she said, will help with the hard work: meticulously sieving the soil in each grid to search for aircraft debris or human remains. (A spokesman for Britain’s Ministry of Defense confirmed that military personnel and veterans would help next week, part of an initiative for wounded, sick and injured service people.)

We don’t want to miss anything,” Ms. Price said. If remains are found, she said, they would likely be returned to the United States, where the D.P.A.A. would use DNA analysis to formally identify the pilot.

Since the excavation began, the team has already found switches, tire fragments and pieces of the aircraft’s fuselage.

Searching the crater, which is waterlogged and filled with several decades of sediment, will be a challenge, Ms. Price said. The force of the plane’s impact into soft soil means that key parts could lie deep beneath the surface, she said.

But despite those challenges, one colleague made a good point recently, she said: “It’s an almost impossible endeavor, and the significance of it is that we try despite that.”

Up to half a million members of the U.S. Army Air Forces were stationed in Britain at the height of the war, responsible for flying and maintaining the fleets of aircraft that attacked Germany, according to the Imperial War Museum. About 30,000 of them died while flying from Britain. Thousands were based in the rural airfields of East Anglia, which includes Suffolk, and many flew B-17s.

Other Defense Department searches are underway: A team in France is searching for three missing airmen whose plane was shot down by German antiaircraft fire on June 6, 1944, during the Normandy landings.

This month, the D.P.A.A. said it had identified the remains of several service members from World War II, including two young men who died in the Philippines after being captured there.

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