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56-year search ends years ago

A 56-year search ends


Cleveland Plain Dealer

     On a snowy morning in April 2001, 56 years after they were killed, the skeletal remains of three American soldiers were found on a remote hillside in Germany. The discovery of their long-lost graves ended a World War II mystery and closed a dark chapter in the lives of three families.

     PFCs David A. Read of Hudson OH, Saul Kokotovich of Gary IN, and Jack C. Beckwith of LaMoure ND, died in December 1944. They were battle casualties of the 395th Infantry Regiment, part of the 99th Infantry Division, and were killed during an American attack launched in mid-December 1944. Read, 19, a radio operator, was hit by German mortar fragments.

     But their bodies were never found. The war in Europe ended five months later.

     Vernon Swanson, a close comrade of Beckwith, went home to Chicago after Germany surrendered. In January 1946, he asked the Army for the location of Beckwith's grave. The reply was disconcerting: The remains had not been recovered or positively identified. Search efforts were under way.

     The same was true of Read and Kokotovich. Their loved ones wrote letters asking for answers. But the Army offered only "deep regret." And folded American flags. In 1951, the Army deemed the remains of Read, Kokotovich, and Beckwith to be "non-recoverable." Their case files were closed.

     As decades passed, World War II became, to many, as remote as ancient Greece. But the war was still of great interest to two young Belgians, Jean-Louis Seel of Ensival and Jean-Philippe Speder of Thirimont. Their hobby is searching for battlefield relics.

     In September 1988, Seel and Speder were digging in the forest at Ardennes, near the Belgian-German border, where they made an incredible discovery: In an old foxhole they found the complete skeleton of PFC Alphonse M. Sito of Baltimore MD.

     Sito, a foot soldier with the 99th Division, had been reported missing since Dec. 16, 1944, the day German armies launched a surprise attack in the Ardennes forest that became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Sito's remains were turned over to the Army and then interred by the family at St. Stanislaus Cemetery in Baltimore.

     I was a student at Ohio State University at the time and an associate member of the 99th Infantry Division Association. News of Sito's discover piqued my imagination. If the two Belgians could find a missing GI by sheer luck, they might be able to find others if a more scientific approach were taken.

     Using records of the American Battle Monuments Commission, I compiled a list of 33 missing soldiers from the 99th. Most were lost during the Battle of the Bulge. I showed the list to Richard H. Byers of Mentor-on-the-Lake.

     Byers, who died in March, was a 99th Division veteran and a seminal member of the 99th Division Association. I proposed publishing the list in the Checkerboard, the association newspaper. Byers instantly embraced the idea. In March 1990, the 33 names were published, along with this request: "If you have knowledge of what happened to any of these men, please contact Dick Byers. With a few facts, a search could be started."

     Byers received a flood of mail. We then evaluated the data. Some of the best information concerned the death of 2nd Lt. L.O. Holloway of Corpus Christie TX.

     Based on the evidence, I prepared a map pinpointing the location where I believed Holloway's body was last seen. Byers hand carried the map to Seel and Speder.

     Map in hand, Seel and Speder entered the Ardennes in November 1990. After a two-day search, they found Holloway's remains, along with his dogtags and other personal effects. An Army team received the remains from the Belgians and shipped the bones and artifacts to their Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii.

     After forensic analysis, Holloway's identification was confirmed and his family notified. In September 1991, he was interred in Texas at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

     In suburban Chicago, the Holloway case inspired Vernon Swanson. Perhaps the remains of his buddy, Jack Beckwith, could be found. Swanson enlisted the cooperation of his wartime cohort, Byron Whitmarsh of Richardson TX. Both men had seen Beckwith's shallow grave, and other graves only a few feet away.

     At least one burial spot was marked by a rifle stuck in the ground. Other graves had only a twig, with a dogtag attached. This makeshift cemetery stood on a wooded hillside the Americans dubbed "88 Hill." The name came from the fearsome 88-mm artillery projectiles used by the Germans.

     Read, Kokotovich and Beckwith died on the hill from German shellfire. The entire area was abandoned to the Germans when their attack started in the early morning of Dec. 16. Dead GIs were hastily buried during the retreat.

     Hoping to find Beckwith's remains, Swanson and Whitmarsh joined forces with Byers, Seel, Speder, and myself in 1991. The hunt was on.

     The search, expanded to include David Read and Saul Kokotovich, gradually dwarfed the effort to locate Holloway.

     Reams of correspondence and Army documents were collected. There were trips to the National Archives, the National Personnel Records Center and the U.S. Army Military History Institute. The families of all three missing men helped. Swanson and Whitmarsh pursued the project as if it were the sole reason for their existence.

     Ironically, it was a single sheet of 8-by-10 paper that offered the best hope for success. It was a crude map drawn in 1948 by Donald O. Woolf Jr., who also had known Beckwith and had seen his grave. The map, drawn to aid the Army's search effort after the war, was found in Beckwith's Army file.

     Woolf noted the graves near a cluster of trees at the edge of a clearing. Unfortunately, he got the compass direction and coordinates wrong. The Army considered the map useless. I found it valuable.

     Woolf's errors were easy to see. But finding the clearing and the cluster of trees was problematic. They had long since disappeared. The hill had been solid fir trees for years.

     The key was an aerial photograph from the National Archives. It showed 88 Hill in December 1944. I found the clearing and grouping of trees, then transferred their locations to a modern topographic map.

     Armed with this new information, Seel and Speder hiked to 88 Hill in February 1992. The two diggers found an M-1 rifle, three U.S. Army combat shoes and an American grenade at the precise spot where I had pinpointed the graves.

     Surely, they had found the grave area. The rifle must have been one of the grave markers. Seel and Speder dug countless holes and trenches in the following months but found nothing.

     One possibility was that the graves had been discovered in 1945 and the bodies disinterred. If so, they would have been buried as "unknowns" at one of the American cemeteries in northwest Europe.

     Sadly, the quest for Read, Kokotovich and Beckwith was at an end again. It was tough news to deliver to their families, especially to Beckwith's 88-year-old mother.

     A bit more was done for one of Read's four brothers. In October 1995, Verne Read, a World War II veteran, traveled to Europe. He and a friend met with Swanson, his wife, Seel and Speder. The foursome escorted Read and his friend to 88 Hill. The graves area was among the spots on the tour.

     After Read's visit, Seel and Speder had little cause to return. Years passed. The aborted search effort faded into a memory.

     Beckwith's mother died in 1997. Read's oldest brother, Thomas, died in 2000. But the ghosts of 88 Hill remained.

     In March 2001, Seel and Speder heard an astounding rumor. Another digger supposedly had found GI dogtags and a wallet belonging to Beckwith. But there was cause for disbelief. "Knowing the guy, we had doubts about the discovery," Seel said.

     But the discovery was no hoax. Anxiety gripped Seel. Had Beckwith's grave been looted by this relic hunter?

     On March 26, Seel returned to 88 Hill with a forest ranger and searched the area. There was no sign of fresh digging. The place had remained untouched since 1992.

     The dogtags and wallet apparently came from someplace other than 88 Hill. But where? On April 11, 2001, Seel decided to double-check. He spent a couple of hours wandering the hill with his metal detector. He scanned the suspected graves area, crossed a forest trail and unearthed an American hand grenade.

     Near the grenade, he made another sweep. Through his earpiece, he heard the telltale ping of a stainless steel dogtag. Seel flipped it from the soil with his shoe and stared in bug-eyed amazement at the name — DAVID A. READ.

     Did the dogtag mark a grave?

     Seel ran out of time and departed without further investigation. He made plans to return with Speder and two friends new to their search team, Marc Marique of Visé and Luc Menestrey of Stembert.

     Early on Tuesday, April 17, Seel and Marique ascended 88 Hill. Two hours later, Speder joined them.

     In late afternoon, Speder fired a short e-mail to Vernon Swanson, Byron Whitmarsh and me:

     "Jack Beckwith, Saul Kokotovich and David Read no longer on the MIA list. Bodies found today. Complete report tonight."

     After more than five decades, 88 Hill, about six miles southeast of Monschau, had finally relinquished the last of its dead. The three were found a scant 30 yards from the 1992 search area.

     Read's dogtag had indeed marked his resting place. The graves of Beckwith and Kokotovich were easily found several feet away.

     Over the next two days, the four Belgians labored to exhume the remains. Each of the dead had a single dogtag around his neck. Rotted clothing also was found, along with boots and overshoes. Apparently all personal effects were removed in 1944 before they were buried.

     What about Beckwith's dogtags and wallet found in March 2001? They must have been among his personal effects and lost elsewhere in the forest. It was not uncommon for a GI to have more than one set of dogtags.

     Once excavation work ended on 88 Hill, Seel e-mailed David Roath of the U.S. Army Mortuary Affairs Activity, Europe. A meeting was arranged for April 23.

     As planned, Roath met the diggers to view the skeletons and artifacts. A second visit was scheduled. Roath would bring a recovery team and take custody of the remains.

     The team arrived on May 14, 2001. With Roath were four specialists from the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, two members of Mortuary Affairs Europe and a DNA expert.

     They took possession of the remains, set up camp on 88 Hill and began the formal identification process. "It was impressive to watch," said Seel, who found their depth of knowledge, precision and professionalism phenomenal.

     After three days, Roath's team placed each soldier in a metal casket. International politics dictated that the remains be given to the German government, then officially handed over to the United States.

     On May 18, a ceremony was held at the German military cemetery near the village of Huertgen. A U.S. Army honor guard accepted three flag-draped caskets from the German War Graves Commission.

     Across the Atlantic, the Army contacted the next of kin. The identity of each man has been temporarily labeled "believed to be," until closure of the identification process.

     In an e-mail, Seel reflected on a sad aspect of the recovery: "The three fallen infantrymen have been together for more than a half century. Now they will likely part company forever."

     Their families may elect to have them interred side-by-side at a U.S. military cemetery in Belgium, or at a national cemetery like Arlington.

     But whatever happens, David Read, Saul Kokotovich and Jack Beckwith will at last be reunited with their families. Our nation will finally be able to provide a burial worthy of the measure of each man's ultimate sacrifice.

     As for the Belgian diggers and their American colleagues, there are strong feelings of accomplishment and pride. Yet, for them the end is nowhere in sight. Their search will continue for other missing World War II soldiers.