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Special digging report

Special digging report

By JEAN-LOUIS SEEL


     On May 18, there was a ceremony at the German cemetery near Hürtgen. That day, the three caskets with the remains of PFCs Jack Beckwith, Saul Kokotovich, and David Read were officially given to U.S. officials. It was the last chapter for these men before the long procedure of identification in Germany and Hawaii. It also closed for us search operations on "88 Hill."

     A few days later, Marc Marique came to my home to see pictures of the ceremony. Of course, we talked about future search efforts. After 88 Hill, it was clear that we had to review all previous attempts to locate missing men.

     We checked a few files. Marc, having a day off the next day, took the one of Frederick Zimmerman. In this file was a map drawn by Gray Smeltzer, a medic assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 394th Infantry. The map showed the location of the 2/394 aid station, with approximated distances from the International Highway (nicknamed "California Road") and the corduroy road. According to information in the file, the body of Sgt. Zimmerman was seen among ten or twelve others lined up next to the aid station hole.

     When the MIA Project started in 1990, we received information regarding four men of 2/394 killed the first day of the "Bulge." The names of these four men are on the Wall of Missing at the Ardennes cemetery: Ewing Fidler, Stanley Larson, Wilmer Smith, Frederick Zimmerman. Much of the information was collected by Rex Whitehead (H/394), a member of the MIA Project. In March 1991, Rex came over with Dick Byers. One day, all together, we checked the 2/394 headquarters area and along the California Road, looking for the aid station hole. It's true to say, that day, we walked a few feet from the three bodies.

     The bigger problem was the exact location of the aid station. The distances on the map didn't match, and after looking for days, we finally gave up. Time to time, we came and searched the area, but only for material. We were convinced the body of Sgt. Zimmerman was recovered with the others right after the war, not positively identified, and buried as an unknown. I forgot to mention that a long time ago, in 1982, another searcher found six dogtags on a big necklace, all belonging to Fred Zimmerman. These dogtags were recovered some 50 yards from the hunting lodge that served as the 2/394 CP. Again, this discovery confirmed our first belief, someone removed Sgt. Zimmerman's tags. When his body was carried to the cemetery, no more identification to confirm his identity, then buried as an unknown.

     Marc departed with the file under his arm. The next day, Friday, May 25, he stopped his car along the International Highway. He entered the woods with his detector and the map drawn by Gray Smeltzer. During three hours, he tried to locate the aid station hole by circling larger and larger. He finally came close to the road (International Highway). There he found an area with many dugouts, some small, some large. Close to one of the larger holes, his detector gave a lot of signals. In checking them, he unearthed nails, metallic parts of boxes, but also some medic's supplies consisting of a small round plastic tube with a needle inside-morphine. After checking a few more signals, Marc finally let down the detector and decided to use only his shovel. Numerous signals at the same spot is always an opportunity to find something special. He was right, after five minutes work, he saw something laying in the dirt, a single dogtag attached to a small necklace. He sat down, cooled down-always a lot of adrenaline when a dogtag is unearthed-and called me on his cellphone. He reached me coming back from work, and gave details. By that time, he still hadn't read the name on the tag. Surprised by his finding and in laughing, I told him to check it, this one might belong to Fred Zimmerman. I'll not report the word he shouted, but I knew it was something really interesting. Yes, unbelievable, but a seventh dogtag showing Zimmerman, Frederick F., 35616612 was just unearthed. This discovery took place just a week after the Hürtgen ceremony.

     Marc kept going around the discovery spot, but didn't find anything else other than two or three more morphine items and a lot of trash. Upon leaving the woods, he checked around the area and reported a few foxholes were close to the dogtag.

     On June 1, Jean-Philippe, Marc and myself had an "appointment" along the California Road. The fourth digger, Jean-Luc had to work that day. We previously decided to empty all the holes in the area. A small depression in the ground was first checked, as well as a two-man foxhole next to it, but without results. JP and myself were refilling that hole when Marc, working on a third one, called us. He had just removed two shovels of dirt, finding parts of clothes. Removing a third one, he finally hit something different-a rubber snow boot. We looked at each other, knowing what it meant. Without a word, Marc checked the top, finding a leg bone emerging from the rubber. For nine years we had no success in the MIA Project, and now, 40 days after "88 Hill," a fourth man was located.

     Yes, we had located the body of Sgt Zimmerman about ten feet from his dogtag. Now, it was time to exhume the remains. JP left the area and went home to pick up his camera. During that time, Marc and myself kept digging in the hole. In taking up the dirt around the snow boot, something harder was hit-a skull. Two men were buried in that hole, side by side but reversed. The surprise was not over. Marc working on the other side, finally located the skull but soon, found another one next to it . . . three men in the hole.

     JP, back from home, joined us and we worked all day to exhume two of the three remains. The work was much harder than on "88 Hill." Parts of the remains were close together, and the difficulty was to keep them apart.

     During the day, Erich Hönen joined us. He couldn't believe it. Finally, late in the afternoon, Jean-Luc came, more than happy with this new success.

     We found some material on the remains, but unfortunately no dogtags. Without a doubt, and thanks to the files and IDPF, we were able to identify Sgt. Zimmerman and Pfc. Larson. Both were from Company H., as well as Pfc. Fidler, a member of Company E.

     On Sgt. Zimmerman's overcoat were found sergeant's stripes and in one of his pockets, was a comb with a name scratched-Goble. (Raymond Goble was Fred's brother-in-law.) Stanley Larson's boot had a laundry number painted inside-L-6476. Nothing special was recovered with Ewing Fidler, except a few coins and an eight-round clip, but he was a very short man easily identifiable. (Three days later, Marc found one of his dogtags a few feet away from the hole.) We left the woods late in the evening. Being very close from the main road, some 50 yards, we didn't want to have strangers on the site. Back at home, I called Vern Swanson to report the new discovery while JP emailed a detail report to the US team.

     The next day, the four of us exhumed Stan Larson's remains under a heavy rain. In doing this, another incredible discovery was made. In one of the upper pockets was found a fountain pen. Giving this pen to JP, he almost fell over when he read the name stamped in the plastic: Rex Whitehead. No way! My heart almost stopped when I read that name. That evening, two pictures of the pen were e-mailed to Rex. What a surprise for him.

     It took all day to exhume the last body. While Jean-Luc and myself were working in the hole, Marc and JP worked on the reconstruction of the remains, checking for missing bones, and sorting the material with attention to each piece of equipment. Again, the recovery was harder here, but we wanted to do a proper job before contacting the U.S. Army. I salute the professionalism of Marc and JP. (This was also done later by David Roath, director of Memorial Affairs.) Forest ranger Hönen held the remains until arrangements were made with Roath.

     I called David Roath on June 2 to report the discovery. Here again, he couldn't believe it. Three days later, he was on site as well as at Erich Hönen's home to check the remains. On June 12, a complete team came from Landsthul, Germany. For two days, the mortuary team worked on site, sifting dirt from the hole and surface around. A few more small bones and teeth were collected. During these two days, we emptied the believed-to-be aid station hole and worked on the remnants of the log cabin used as Company E CP. Our intent was to find Stanley Larson's dogtags. But we had no success.

     Another rendezvous was fixed after our trip to the 99th annual convention. Later in the month, came two U.S. Army doctors to process the remains. On June 28th, the three men were put in individual caskets draped with US flags. The three caskets were then put in the Krinkelt church and a wonderful ceremony took place the following day. Among the guests were U.S. Ambassador Brauer and his wife. Three certificates of death were given to the Ambassador, official procedure before their move to Germany and then the USA.

     Yes, a job well done, only realizing it when the caskets were put in the hearses and departed the church. Again, the same strong emotions in saying good bye to them.

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