99th MIA search team scores again

Since the last MIA recovery, Pvt. Odell Sharpe of Company H, 393rd Infantry, in September 2003, the 99th Division MIA Project continued its long and meticulous work on the battlefield. From time to time, the Diggers – Jean-Louis Seel and Jean-Philippe Speder — unearthed elements that generated foolish hopes of a new recovery but unfortunately all came to a dead end.

Stateside, Bill Warnock, chief researcher of the team, wasn’t waiting for developments in Belgium. He also was doing his part of the search, digging in the National Archives and conducting interviews. It wasn’t all useful, but the information provided pieces to the puzzle. Early in September 2008, Bill went to Belgium to review some of the cases, inspect new sites and bring the Diggers his latest developments on several cases. He accompanied the team to different sites to “feel” the terrain – a much needed feeling for this type of search.

One of the cases Warnock wished to review involved a serviceman, reported missing in action on Jan. 21, 1945, after his recon patrol was ambushed by the Germans. This case was going to be difficult since we had no direct eyewitnesses. Had he been killed onsite, captured, wounded and deceased in a military hospital? There were many questions.

Because the location today is part of the firing range of Camp Elsenborn, we sought permission to search the area. On Sept. 5, Warnock met with Seel and Speder. Equipped with maps and metal detectors, the three men searched the flank of a remote hill, scene of bitter hand-to-hand fighting during the month of January 1945, and where the patrol was ambushed. Besides a full box of German MG ammo, no major discoveries were made that afternoon. The box itself was of no interest but it meant that no souvenir hunters had disturbed the site. We decided to come back later, during a lull in the hunting season.

Seel went back in early October. was meaning that no, if any, souvenir hunter had disturbed the site. It was decided to come back later on during a lull in the hunting season. Seel went back there again early October. Earlier feelings were good. American equipment had been found nearby and a hiker had found a portion of a human skull last year. With this in mind, Seel began his journey.

There was no big find until late afternoon, when his detector hit a noticeable target in a shallow depression. Seel kneeled and began to dig. He soon unearthed a German gas mask canister with the mask still inside. In the hole, clothes and pieces of leather equipment were visible. Seel knew he was on human remains, German remains. He worked carefully to locate the dogtag and soon found two of them. Two bodies? This was confirmed by a number of duplicate bones.

By then, the afternoon had passed and Seel decided to postpone the excavation of the common grave and come back later with the team to do the complete site clearance. It was scheduled for Oct. 11. Kevin Dougherty, reporter for stars and Stripes, accompanied the team to the site (see article “Digging for remains, burying the past”).

Against oblivion (forgetting?)

Throughout the years, the 99th MIA Project members have developed a true partnership with Camp Elsenborn and are involved in different activities. When the idea of erecting a monument on the Ridge surfaced, they naturally joined the monument committee. It was not to be another Battle of the Bulge monument, but was intended to be a marker to commemorate the sacrifice and suffering of young soldiers, whatever side they fought with, as well as the local population. The dedication would be called “Contre l’Oubli” (Against Oblivion).

There was no better place than Elsenborn Ridge, and no better date than Dec. 16, 2008. Color guards and official detachments of five nations – the United States, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the United Kingdom — were invited. They would be joined by a large delegation of local politicians and children from the nearby schools. Veterans also were asked to attend the ceremony.

Since the recovery of the two German Grenadiers had been made in the training area of Camp Elsenborn, the Belgian Army had taken custody of the remains. It was proposed to officially turn over the two sets of remains to the German Army that same day. Every MIA being a forgotten serviceman, this action naturally found pride of place as part of the ceremony.

On Dec. 16, 2008, about 250 people gathered at Camp Elsenborn. Among the distinguished guests, B.O. Wilkins and Howard Bowers, both 99ers, were in attendance. They were the only American veterans present. Dr. Wingolf Scherer, former Lieutenant in the 989th Volksgrenadier Regiment and longtime friend of the 99th, was leading a group of a dozen of German veterans, mostly from the 277th Volksgrenadier Division. Even the weather was present for that special occasion, a white carpet was covering the Ardennes and freezing temperatures reminded the crowd of the terrible combat conditions encountered 64 years ago.

The ceremonies began with a church service in the camp’s beautiful chapel. The Diggers officially turned the German remains to Lieutenant Colonel Erik De Muynck, commander of Camp Elsenborn who, in turn, turned them over to the German Army Mortuary Affairs. The camp’s chaplain emphasized the stiffness of the battle and the miserable life on the front line. He reminded those present why they were there and their duty toward the coming generations. B.O. Wilkins ended the service with a speech, telling the audience how much his presence at such a ceremony meant to him.

Belgian Army buses transferred all the guests to the eastern limit of the firing range on the Ridge, where the Color Guard and military detachments of each army were waiting. Lt. Col. DeMuynck began the dedication, underlining the meaningful location of the monument and placed the Color Guard. Roland Gaul, president of the Battle of the Bulge Museums Association and coordinator of the event, mentioned the uniqueness of such a monument and such a dedication. The Belgian flag covering the monument was removed, revealing a large plaque showing an American CIB, a Belgian oriflamme and a German iron cross overlooking the following inscriptions, both in German and in English.

“Elsenborn Ridge – winter 1944 / 1945.

This monument serves as a respectful remembrance of the countless dead and wounded American and German soldiers, as well as of the civilian victims of the murderous Battle of the Bulge”.

After the chaplain blessed the monument, national anthems were played. Buglers sounded a two-tone “Taps” while a 105mm howitzer fired a gun salute in the morning fog. There was not a dry eye in the audience. Wreaths and flowers were placed by local school children. The commander of the camp concluded the ceremony and invited guests to the officers’ mess for a drink and a meal.

Elsenborn Ridge was the only key point of the Battle of the Bulge that had not received official recognition, mainly because it stands in military territory, but probably also due to an undervaluing of the actions which took place there. This misconception slowly disappeared as stories and military archives surfaced and when historians finally realized the strategic importance of this high ground. Elsenborn Ridge has officially received the tribute it deserves and a monument stands now on this remote land of pain and suffering.

Last modified May 18, 2009

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