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99th appreciates the Diggers years ago

By THOR RONNINGEN

I Company, 395th Infantry

Jean-Phillipe Speder and Jean-Louis Seel met for the first time when they were in high school in 1978. They were both natives of Belgium and had grown up hearing about WWII and particularly about the Battle of the Bulge which was largely fought in the area they called home.

For several years much of this area was closed to visitors of any kind because of the abundance of explosives left over from the war. Many explosive devices are still found there. A determined effort was made to clean up these explosives and in doing so some marked and unmarked graves were found in the cleared areas by policemen and forensic teams. However, many of the heavily forest areas were not searched for remains.

In the mid-1970s the two young men began to search for artifacts and souvenirs, which were plentiful. On a rainy day in February 1980 they went searching with JP's new mine detector. JL found his first dog tag before he was 18 years old near Rocherath. It had belonged to Max Wisnieski from Waukesha WI, who had been a member of A Company, 385th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division. With Will Cavanagh's help, Wisnieski's widow was located and the dog tag returned to her.

This opened up a completely new vista — real front line soldiers with real stories. They now began searching for items with personal identification such as dog tags, ID bracelets, mess kits and canteens with names and serial numbers or laundry numbers scratched in them. (Army laundry markers were the first letter of the soldier's last name followed by the last four digits of his serial number.) In 1986 they contacted the 99th Infantry Division Association for help in identifying and locating men to match the numbers they were gathering. This began a close association and in 1987 JP and JL joined the 99th Association.

Over the years they have been able to identify items belonging to more than 450 veterans from more than 50 different units and, in most cases, returning them to the veteran or his family. They have built an extensive file of names, serial numbers and units. In some cases it has been harder to find the veteran than it was to find the artifact. Veterans of the 99th welcomed these men as members and called them "The Diggers."

MIA Project

On Thursday, Sept. 29, 1988, the MIA project began. This is the day the Diggers found the remains of Alphonse M. Sito of B Company, 394th Regiment. Sito had been guarding the right flank of a light machine gun squad in heavy woods near Losheim, Germany, when the Germans launched the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 16, 1944. The squad fought valiantly but were overcome and had to surrender. Sito died in his foxhole of a head wound and remained there for 44 years. The team notified the 99th Division Association and also contacted Mortuary Affairs of the U.S. Army in Frankfurt, Germany, who sent a team to examine the site and take charge of the remains.

The U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii made positive identification and Sito's family was notified. On Dec. 6, 1989, he was returned to his family and on Dec. 18 received a proper burial in St. Stanislaus Cemetery in Baltimore MD.

This was the genesis of the "On Site Search Team." The late Richard H. Byers and Rex Whitehead, both 99th veterans, and Bill Warnock, a student at Ohio State, all members of the 99th Archives Committee, heard of the Sito discover and felt that more should be done to locate other MIAs. Warnock compiled a list of 33 names of men from the 99th who were listed as MIAs.

This list was published in the Checkerboard, the association's newspaper, requesting help from the members. The Archives Committee searched records in the National Archives, Military History Institute, and the National Personnel Records Center. They ended up with a mass of data such as maps, photographs, overlays, witnesses, morning reports, after action reports, etc., which gave as complete a picture as possible of potential search sites.

In October 1990, Dick Byers went to Belgium with a number of former 99'ers to dedicate a monument to the division at Krinkelt-Rocherath and brought all this information to the On Site Search Team. From this they created a map showing the possible location of 2nd Lt. Lonnie O. Holloway Jr.'s remains. Holloway had been weapons platoon leader, K Company, 393rd Infantry. On Nov. 9, 1990, Lt. Holloway's remains were found about 10 yards from where he was last seen on Dec. 16, 1944. The team contacted the Army who sent the remains to Hawaii where positive identification was made. On Sept. 6, 1991, Lt. Holloway was buried in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio TX, with full military honors.

Finding these bodies is not as simple as it may seem to some. Fifty-year-old memories are not always that accurate and even a small error can lead to futility instead of success. The area these men are searching in is mostly heavy forests, many hills, winding streams and relatively few roads. Digging in battlefields is strictly prohibited in Belgium but the Diggers believed in what they were doing and took the risk. They had some trouble with the forest rangers, but, when they explained what they were doing and why they were doing it, several rangers gave them unofficial permission and two rangers have even worked with them and helped as much as possible.

American remains

In June 1992 Jean-Louis was seeking permission to search an area in the forest when the chief ranger, Mr. Erich Hönen, told him a lumberjack had recently found bones near a foxhole with rusty remains of some German equipment. Hönen had verified the lumberjack's story and local authorities decided to bury the German bones in a pauper's grave in Rocherath. However, nothing had been done yet and Jean-Louis suggested a search of the foxhole for identification. This was done and on July 3, 1992, Hönen took the Diggers to the foxhole.

They carefully searched the area and sifted the dirt in and around the foxhole. They not only came up with a sizable collection of bones, they also unearthed pieces of a U.S. winter combat uniform and vestiges of a .30-caliber cartridge belt and clips for an M-1 rifle, but, unfortunately, no dog tags. It became obvious to them that these were the bones of an American, not a German. By the end of the day, almost a complete skeleton had taken shape, but things were complicated by the discovery of duplicate bones and a set of U.S. Army sergeant's stripes. Again the remains were turned over to the U.S. Army team who also searched the area and sent all they had to the laboratory in Hawaii. The MIA Search Team has concluded that they had found the remains of two American soldiers, one of them a sergeant, and from exhaustive study of all available records, feel reasonably confident that they know who these men were, but, in the absence of positive identification by the Army Forensic Lab, can do no more.

In 1994 Marc Marique and Jean-Luc Menestrey joined the Diggers so now there are four dedicated young men on the On Site Search Team.

For several years, the Diggers searched diligently, but were unable to discover any more remains. On Jan. 9, 1998, a German citizen working in his garden in the village of Schmidt discovered the remains of Sgt. Lemuel H. Herbert, a member of the 112th Infantry, 28th Division. Herbert had been reported missing as of Nov. 7, 1944. This led to a meeting between the Diggers and Manfred Klein and his team, a German counterpart of the Diggers. The two groups now share information and do what they can to help one another.

Three more remains

In 1992 the team received very accurate information about the location of a grave of three men who were buried in a temporary grave when their unit had to pull back. They located the gravesite quickly and discovered a rifle, probably used to mark the grave, but no remains. It became clear that the bodies had been located, moved, and re-buried as unknowns. On April 11, 2001, Seel was in the area and decided to search the other side of an adjacent trail. He found an American hand grenade but nothing else. His metal detector was still on as he headed for his car and he got a positive signal. With his foot he scratched out a dog tag, and it had the name of one of these three men! David Read! He left immediately and notified the rest of the team. On April 17, they cleared tree debris away from where the dog tag had been found. Seel noted the outline of a slit trench about two meters away, checked with his detector and got a positive response. The ground was soft and a foot down they encountered a human bone. They called forest ranger Erich Hönen to join them as they were just across the border into Germany. These remains turned out to be those of Pfc. Jack C. Beckwith of C Company, 395th Infantry. The detector gave a positive reading as they searched about three meters away from the first grave. Digging here they recovered the remains of Pfc. Saul Kokotovich, also a member of C Company. It took about 20 minutes to find a third grave. By this time it was late afternoon and a large fir tree had been planted right over the grave so they left for the day. On April 19 it took the better part of a day to remove the remains of Pfc. David A. Read of Cannon Company, 395th.

On May 14, 2001, the U.S. Army Memorial Affairs Team set up facilities on site and searched the area and examined the bones and graves carefully. On May 15 the three bodies, in caskets, were delivered to German authorities. On May 18 the Germans returned these caskets to U.S. officials at an impressive cemetery ceremony with full military honors from V Corps troops stationed in Germany.

Emotional boost

This success was a great emotional boost to the team and led them to re-examine other files and thoroughly review their past attempts to locate missing men. Marc took the file of Frederick Zimmerman and decided to re-examine the area where he had been buried. Past searches going back to March 1991 had convinced the Diggers that Zimmerman's body had been recovered and re-buried as "unknown." With his detector, Marc worked in ever widening circles until he got a lot of signals. He began to dig with his shovel and discovered a dog tag, which is always a moving event, and immediately notified the other team members.

On June 1, 2001, Jean-Phillipe, Marc, and Jean-Louis met at this area and began digging in the many foxholes nearby. Marc called to the others that he had found something: a rubber snow boot that contained a leg bone. In digging for the rest of the skeleton, a shovel struck a skull and here was a second skeleton. Continued digging unbelievably brought up yet a third set of bones! They had discovered the remains of Sgt. Frederick F. Zimmerman and Pfc. Stanley Larson of H Company, 394th Infantry and Pfc. Ewing Fidler of E Company, 394th Infantry. For nine years the search team had been unable to locate a single MIA, and now, in the period of a month and a half they had located six!

Now you know why those of us who know them are so proud of the Diggers. They have recovered eight of our comrades who have been positively identified and two whose identity is uncertain. They have worked diligently for years and invested money, sweat, emotional effort, and countless hours for the sole purpose of paying back American veterans for the freedom Belgium enjoys today. They well deserve the respect they have from American, Belgian, and German Army search teams, local government officials, hundreds of American veterans and others who are aware of their work. Above all they have the undying gratitude of families who can now put closure to their loved ones who had been listing as Missing in Action.

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