Remains of another day

Dog tags, a wedding ring, a rosary — the effects of
World War II’s soldiers continue to come home, along with their stories.
By Ellen Gamerman
Courtesy of The BaltimoreSun
Originally published May 25, 2004

Tomorrow in a veterans cemetery in Cheltenham, a World War II pilot shot down over Luxembourg in the winter of 1944 will finally get his funeral. His coffin will be lowered into a plot between two wild cherry trees. His widow and daughter will mourn him. The grounds crew will shovel in the earth. Sixty years after his last breath in the cockpit of a burning P-47D Thunderbolt, the truth of Second Lieutenant John R. Dyer’s death has come home.

Returning slain soldiers to U.S. soil and retrieving the story of their deaths from the cloud of confusion that surrounds war is the work of the U.S. Army’s Casualty and Memorial Affairs Operations Center in Alexandria, Virginia. This office handles the bureaucracy of death. Its business is bereavement. It knows the fresh grief over a soldier killed in Iraq. It knows the shadowy sorrow from a death more than half a century ago. And it knows how the mystery of a loss can linger, promoting misinformation and stories that sometimes never get set straight.

But today, in that office, Dyer’s name is penned in green ink on a board listing closed cases. Six decades after the Army declared his body “non-recoverable,” the facts have returned with Dyer’s remains.

Two years ago, the Luxembourg military alerted the U.S. Army to aircraft wreckage found near the town of Niederwampach. The United States sent a team to excavate the crash site, finding teeth, bits of cranium and Dyer’s dog tags in a crater that for decades had been used for the disposal of dead livestock. As a result, the Army concluded it was wrong all those years ago when it reported that after Dyer’s plane was hit by anti-aircraft artillery fire, the airman parachuted to the ground, was captured and later killed by his German guards.

The facts were simpler: There was a hit, a crash, a death.

While the nation focuses its attention on the latest casualties returning to the United States from Iraq, soldiers slain in every U.S. conflict since World War II continue to make a quiet march home. The Army’s mortuary affairs office, two floors below the room where Iraq deaths are processed, receives more than 200 inquiries into the deaths of World War II soldiers each month. With the official opening of the World War II Memorial in Washington this weekend, the staff expects even more questions about the 78,000 soldiers from that conflict whose bodies were never found.

Families want answers, even if they come almost a lifetime later.

“It was always a story, what happened to my father,” says Carolyn Sowell, Dyer’s daughter. “Now it’s a reality.”

The 59-year-old grandmother from Clinton was just 2 weeks old when her father was killed. Because her mother remarried, the Army considers Sowell the next of kin and has given her power over her father’s remains and personal effects. She grew up close to her late stepfather, who adopted her, and always viewed her father’s story as unknowable.

Now, the chance to bury John Dyer reaches a part of her past that has long felt inaccessible.

“There’s actually going to be something I can do for my father – to finally bring his life to closure,” says Sowell, who now thinks about how much the yellow brown in her eyes looks like the color in her granddaughter’s – and in her father’s – and feels a link to the man she never knew.

She is, at last, closer to him than at any point in her life. She wonders what it will feel like to sit with her father’s remains at the funeral home tomorrow. She recalls asking an Army official about those shattered bones.

“Can I open that package up and touch them?” she asked. “So I can touch my father?”

If it will help, he told her. If it will help.

Lieutenant Colonel Ron Long can see the way grief changes over time, the way it stays the same.

As chief of Mortuary Affairs and Casualty Support, Long oversees the retrieval of ancient remains of World War II soldiers and airmen as well as the record-keeping for the dead and wounded in Iraq. He knows that families of soldiers slain in the Iraq war are often bereft, confused, angry; they want more information faster, complain there isn’t nearly enough.

And he knows there can be more to learn. He tells his staff to take careful records. The Army has retrieved the remains of more than 290 World War II soldiers over the last three decades, thanks in part to reviewing old reports.

Sixty years from now, Long thinks, their Iraq files could be reopened, too.

The retrieval of information surrounding World War II deaths is important for families, of course, and for history. But in the brightly lit warren of offices at the mortuary affairs division, it also provides solace for the people doing the work – it reminds them they are fulfilling the Army’s promise to its soldiers, even if it takes decades to do so.

“I think, ‘What if it were me? What if it were my family?'” says Long, 41, whose military staccato carries evidence of his North Carolina youth. “If I were in a situation any of these heroes were put in, at least I’d know that somebody would be looking for me. They wouldn’t stop looking for me. They wouldn’t stop taking care of my family.”

Long is sitting in the public affairs office of the Army’s personnel services division, known as the U.S. Army Human Resources Command. At a computer behind him, a staffer types a casualty report for a soldier killed in Iraq. The report will be released at 6 p.m., exactly 24 hours after a uniformed Army officer has visited that family’s home.

When the remains of World War II soldiers are found today, the same protocol is followed. A uniformed Army representative knocks on the door of the next of kin – though so many decades later, that often means a distant relative. Along with personal effects, the serviceman hand-delivers the report detailing the soldier’s death.

Families often react the same way: They want a military funeral all these years later. Most burials happen at Arlington National Cemetery. The Army casket holds a uniform bearing the soldier’s honors and, under that, a pinned blanket holding the remains. At Arlington, there are uniformed pallbearers, a flag-draped coffin, a bugler, a firing party.

“It was a very emotional ceremony,” recalls Marvin Clement, 73. “It was a miracle that it happened.”

Marvin Clement was only 9 when his big brother, Alfred, prepared to go to war. He remembers Alfred looking out for him and his six other siblings in Marquette, Michigan, driving them in the family car, giving them 10 cents for a movie, a nickel for popcorn. Then, on Nov. 5, 1941, Alfred left their home on West Bluff Street in his Army greens.

When Private First Class Alfred J. Clement was killed in France in 1944, the family received the telegrams. First he was listed as missing in action, then a month later the Army reported he was killed in combat near the Moselle River in eastern France. The boy’s mother suffered a heart attack. The family learned no body could be found.

As he got older, Marvin Clement wondered about those lost remains. In 1950, he joined the Navy and put in for overseas duty on the Rhine River, hoping he might get closer to the spot where his brother was killed.

But Clement never did.

In September 2000, a French group called “Thanks, GIs” excavated a riverbed in eastern France where U.S. soldiers were thought to have been killed. The team discovered Clement’s full skeleton, buttons, pocket knife and rosary deep in the mud. An Army research lab verified his identity, and the body was sent home for burial at Arlington last year.

By then, Marvin Clement’s other two brothers had died. He himself had survived open-heart surgery and several other operations. But Private Alfred J. Clements’ baby brother felt like he had a mission that day.

“Maybe I was kept alive for that reason,” says the retiree from Lake City, Florida “Maybe the good Lord kept me alive after all I’ve been through because this was going to happen in my lifetime. I was going to see his burial.”

Long consoles himself with cases like the one that allowed Marvin Clement to say good-bye.

“That guy was still waiting on us,” Long says. “He lived a full life. He raised a family. But when all was said and done, he still knew he had a purpose – he just didn’t know what it was. Now he does. Now he knows his brother’s story.”

The wedding ring was lost to Ruth Weeks.

In that summer of 1944, the widow learned there was nothing she could hold onto after her husband, Carl Hoenshell, was shot down in his P-38 Lightning. His plane had disappeared during a mission over the oil refineries of Ploesti, Romania, and he was reported missing. She thought maybe he was taken prisoner by the Germans. But time passed, and each letter the Army sent to the widow in Owosso, Michigan, had less information than the one before.

Finally, he was declared dead. His plane was never found.

Ruth Weeks grieved. But her mourning felt complicated.

“You don’t have any answers,” says the 83-year-old great-grandmother, who still tends her flower garden at home in Owosso as she did 60 years ago. “Every day of your life, you get up wondering what really did happen.”

The widow remarried a few years after Carl’s death and had a daughter. She lost touch with the Hoenshells; she and the family would talk only when they bumped into each other in town. Her remarriage upset them, Weeks says, arguing that they were hurt that she didn’t wait for more details about her husband’s death before remarrying.

It wouldn’t have made a difference: With every decade, there was still no word.

But on Memorial Day weekend in 1997, Weeks’ niece, Elizabeth Wilson, embarked on a search about her own father, who also died in World War II. Along the way, she became fascinated with the story of her Uncle Carl.

Wilson was never close to her Aunt Ruth, given the family rift over the widow’s remarriage, but she got hooked on the whereabouts of Carl Hoenshell. She developed an online search seeking details about his death – dubbed “The Carl Squadron” – and employed the expertise of military researchers. Eventually, she found her way to a newspaper reporter in Belgrade and a young financial analyst from Michigan working near Sofia, Bulgaria. She asked for their help.

Their research led to a barn in the remote Bulgarian countryside.

Wilson, a 50-year-old businesswoman who grew up in Owosso but later moved to Jacksonville, Fla., traveled to that barn. Her older brother came, too. He brought his metal detector. They paid the farmer to remove the barn floor.

First Lieutenant Carl C. Hoenshell, they knew through their own research, had completed his bombing run over the Romanian oil fields but had circled back to help another U.S. pilot with a failing engine. On that return trip, German bombers opened fire on him, and Hoenshell, out of ammunition, circled madly to escape. According to a witness Wilson helped find – a farmer’s son who was 17 years old at the time and saw the dog fight over his parents’ land – Hoenshell’s plane attempted to land in a pasture, its engine on fire. Within seconds, it rolled into trees and blew apart.

Decades later, underneath the barn, the descendants started to dig.

Soon, they found what they would learn was the nose strut assembly of a P-38.

The Army then conducted an official excavation. Wilson was in Bulgaria when Army researchers found Carl Hoenshell’s ID bracelet. It was battered, but bore the letters, “oenshell,” his identification number and “Ruth” on the back. Wilson called her aunt as soon as she heard. Back in Owosso, it was 2 a.m.

“I said, ‘Aunt Ruth, I hate to get you up so early, but I’ve got some tremendous news for you,'” Wilson recalls. “Did you know Carl wore a bracelet? Better yet, it has your name on it.”

Weeks was alone in her bedroom. Her second marriage had fallen apart years before. She listened to her niece, with whom she had grown closer through this search, and the two cried and prayed together long-distance.

The war in Kosovo interrupted the search for more artifacts, but in 2002, the Army tried again. This time, they found a significant portion of remains and, deep in the soil, a perfectly preserved wedding ring.

It was a simple gold band with beading on the edges, part of a matching set.

The other was tucked inside a cedar chest in Ruth Weeks’ bedroom.

When the Army returned the ring to Weeks on Valentine’s Day 2003, it comforted the widow. She immersed herself in the letters her late husband had written her. She wore her own ring again, placing his band on top of hers.

But there was something unsettling in this new knowledge, too. Even after his funeral – Hoenshell was interred in a plot next to his mother in Owosso – the episode felt fresh in a way it hadn’t for decades. His widow kept thinking of his last minutes in that plane, and whether he was too focused to think of anything but survival. She wondered if he thought of her. She felt the weight of this unearthed fact: that Carl Hoenshell made it out alive, but then turned back.

“I think knowing what really happened helps you – but I don’t think it makes you any happier,” she says now. “In fact, I think it made me sadder for a long time. I kept thinking if he hadn’t gone back, he could have made it.”

The discovery of the facts surrounding her husband’s last day brought home her own painful story.

“He was the love of my life,” she says. “You never stop loving a person just because they’re gone.”

She doesn’t wear his wedding ring now. She’s afraid it will be damaged or lost.

But she has made this arrangement:

When she dies, she wants it buried with her.

One afternoon in the Army’s mortuary affairs office, Lieutenant Colonel Deborah Skillman opened a large manila folder and history spilled out. Inside was a yellowed Social Security card, a ripped savings bond for $150, a military ID with a fingerprint, a California driver’s license, a calling card, a picture of a woman with full lips and a sad gaze.

Also included was a snapshot of a man wearing a dead-on stare and a stiff Army uniform:

Samuel R. Gilmor, Lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, killed in action on October 10, 1943.

On a recent morning, the TV news on mute, Skillman looks through the file she came across on a routine inquiry – a file that hadn’t been opened much, if ever, since the soldier was buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery after the war. Somehow with the Army’s death-related paperwork, the contents of his wallet were tucked inside as well.

Now Skillman is searching for Gilmor’s next of kin to hand over these last personal effects.

Not only do families of World War II veterans call the Army’s mortuary affairs office looking for information, but sometimes the opposite happens – the Army hunts down relatives to deliver retrieved bits of personal history.

The Army uses genealogists to take DNA samples from the female bloodlines of World War II veterans so that it can confirm identification on ancient remains. It seeks out distant family members when old crash sites are found.

“They’re grateful to have any information,” says Skillman. “If they don’t know their loved one is listed on tablets of the missing somewhere, they’re so appreciative.”

There is some basic bureaucracy that surrounds World War II ancient remains cases, as they are called. Some searches are more likely than others. Downed World War II planes with crews of eight or 10 people are more attractive because they promise the biggest return. And science affects the outcome, too. World War II skeletons, for example, are easier to recover than those from Korea or Vietnam because bodies deteriorate much faster in acidic jungle soil.

Sometimes the Army re-examines old sites with modern tools like ground-penetrating radar to find more remains, prompting second funerals back home. It has sent climbers into the Himalayas and divers into the Bay of Tunis.

Skillman expects her phone will ring even more after the World War II Memorial dedication, the way it did after the opening of the Korean and Vietnam memorials. With those ceremonies, families realized how little they knew about their relatives whose bodies were never found. Skillman understands why families crave the stories of these lost men.

“These are heroes,” she says. “Family heroes.”

The remains retrieved from John Dyer’s crash site in Luxembourg are so few, they could fit in one hand.

But they carry with them the facts of a soldier’s death.

In 1944, Dyer’s flight leader had seen his plane burning and radioed him to bail out, but another airman from that mission testified that he never saw Dyer leave his plane. Still, that account did not prevail in the official record.

Instead, military investigators concluded the other airman’s view was obscured and he couldn’t see Dyer escape. That inquiry quoted witnesses saying Dyer floated to earth in his open parachute and was captured. The Army had concluded since Dyer’s body was never found that he was murdered and buried by the Germans.

But with the recent reopening of the case, the Army noted that the physical description of the pilot and the account of his capture matched that of another pilot taken prisoner the month after Dyer’s plane went down. Witnesses probably confused the airmen, the Army now believes, since the tails of both planes bore similar ID numbers.

That other pilot survived his captivity and returned to the United States after the war.

Dyer died that day.

At his funeral in Prince George’s County tomorrow, John Dyer’s story will conclude with the truth.

The airman’s 83-year-old widow, Elinor Davis, will no longer have to imagine his end as the Army first told it.

The daughter he never met, Carolyn Sowell, can know her father’s death was almost certainly faster than she once thought – that his plane was caught in anti-aircraft fire, rolled, hit the ground and exploded.

That telegram informing next of kin of the crash was once all Sowell had.

Now she has her father’s dog tags, too.

And there is something else she can touch:

A grave, a tombstone on U.S. soil, a marker 10 miles from home.

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