British archaeologists search for American pilot missing since World War II

The blackened plane crash site, covered in rhododendrons and hidden in the quiet woods of eastern England, had been for 80 years the final resting place of a missing American pilot.

Now, a group led by British archaeologists carefully searches through the tangled branches, soil and mud with a hopeful mission: to find the remains of the pilot, who died during World War II, and bring him home.

Your help has been requested by a specialized Department of Defense unit responsible for finding the remains of tens of thousands of American service members who died as prisoners of war or were considered missing in action.

More than 72,000 Americans are still missing from World War II, according to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA. However, that number has slowly been decreasing as the agency has found and identified more sets of remains.

“They are still trying to fulfill that ‘no man left behind’ promise,” said Rosanna Price, a spokeswoman for Cotswold Archaeology, the group leading the dig in Suffolk, a county in eastern England. “That’s pretty powerful for us.”

Price said the group hoped to uncover enough answers to offer closure to the pilot’s surviving family members. “That’s our motivation: to remember these guys and also tell their stories,” she said.

In August 1944, the pilot was flying a B-17, the giant bomber known as the Flying Fortress, carrying a 12,000-pound load of Torpex, an explosive. The controls failed, Price said, and the plane crashed into the woods. The explosives detonated upon impact.

Price declined to name the pilot and said his remains had never been located. Local historians searched the crash site for remains of the plane in the 1970s, he said. The DPAA did not immediately respond to requests for more details.

Cotswold Archaeology’s search, which began this month and will last six weeks, will be more extensive. The team will excavate a crater at the crash site that is nearly 10 feet deep and use metal detectors to search a nearby two-acre area divided into smaller grids.

About 60 volunteers, including current and former British military personnel, he said, will help with the hard work: meticulously sifting the soil in each grid for aircraft debris or human remains. (A spokesperson for Britain’s Ministry of Defense confirmed that military personnel and veterans would help next week, as part of an initiative for wounded, sick and injured servicemen.)

We don’t want to miss anything,” Ms. Price said. If remains are found, she said, they will likely be returned to the United States, where the DPAA would use DNA analysis to formally identify the pilot.

Since the excavation began, the team has already found switches, tire fragments and pieces of the plane’s fuselage.

Searching the crater, which is waterlogged and filled with decades-old sediment, will be a challenge, Price said. The force of the plane’s impact on the soft ground means key parts could lie far below the surface, he said.

But despite those challenges, a colleague made a good point recently: “It’s an almost impossible task, and the important thing is that we try despite that.”

According to the Imperial War Museum, up to half a million members of the US Army Air Forces were stationed in Britain at the height of the war, responsible for flying and maintaining the fleets of aircraft that attacked Germany. Around 30,000 of them died while flying from Britain. Thousands of them were based at the rural airfields of East Anglia, which includes Suffolk, and many flew B-17s.

Other Defense Department searches are underway: A team in France is searching for three missing airmen whose plane was shot down by German anti-aircraft fire on June 6, 1944, during the Normandy landings.

This month, the DPAA said it had identified the remains of several World War II service members, including two young men who died in the Philippines after being captured there.

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