- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2007

Cecil, Bill, Tom, Russ, George: The five of them took off aboard a C-47 transport plane during World War II and never came back. The Army Air Force crew had completed their mission Sept. 1, 1944, delivering paratroopers to a drop zone over Holland before the aircraft crashed, with no survivors. The Germans then sabotaged the local waterways and flooded the area, leaving men and plane at the bottom of a watery, anonymous grave more than six decades ago.

But those men and their mission are not forgotten. On May 2, they all came home, thanks to the Department of Defense’s POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO), whose motto is “Promise Kept” and whose mission is to recover and repatriate the remains of military troops from five wars.

It is both science and art; the work is highly disciplined but also heartfelt and determined. The 600-person office includes a specialized lab in Hawaii, field workers, family liaisons, mortuary specialists, forensic anthropologists, dentists, archeology specialists, detectives and coordinators. The painstaking identification process — carried out at crash sites, back roads, and mountaintops — is not without risk and often takes years.

But the men who were on that C-47 are home now.

The remains of 1st Lt. Cecil W. Biggs of Teague, Texas; 1st Lt. William L. Pearce of San Antonio; 2nd Lt. Thomas R. Yenner of Kingston, Pa.; Tech. Sgt. Russell W. Abendschoen of York, Pa.; and Staff Sgt. George G. Herbst of Brooklyn, N.Y. have been returned to their next of kin. Three of the crew will be buried next month in Arlington National Cemetery.

“We do bring them home, and with honor,” DPMO spokesman Larry Greer said. “Once identified, the remains, even a bone fragment, have a full military escort, a flag-draped casket, an honor guard. If the family wants to escort the remains, we’ll arrange for that too.”

Families, Mr. Greer said, are often amazed at how far the military will go to return their loved ones, even decades after they were lost in battle. Month by month, the bittersweet reunions are steady. Sometimes there are four, even six new identifications made, and another lost man comes back home and is laid to rest at last.

“This office is relentless, and I believe this dedication to bring home our fallen is distinctly American. It is something we do as a nation,” said Robin Piacine, founder of the Pennsylvania-based Coalition of Families of Korean and Cold War POW/MIA — who still seeks news of her uncle, an Army medic lost in North Korea in 1950.

“The DPMO mission is worldwide, they’re good people. They care, they have a calling. And their work is a sign to those who serve now and in the future that we will never, ever them leave behind,” Mrs. Piacine said.

Their work is also daunting. More than 78,000 soldiers, airmen and sailors remain unaccounted for from World War II. There are about 8,100 missing in action from the Korean War and 1,784 from Vietnam. Another 125 are missing from the Cold War era, and three are missing or presumed captured from the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Following tips or rumors, DPMO field workers journey to Southeast Asia, Europe and the Pacific to interview witnesses, investigate rumors or comb through the decayed or overgrown crash sites of downed aircraft. Sometimes they must arrange for remains to be disinterred from a local graveyard, or exact delicate diplomacy with local leaders who could provide valuable information. Dog tags, distinctive bits of uniform and equipment can also help in their quest.

“Some of it depends on local conditions, local customs,” Mr. Greer said. “The residents of New Guinea, for example, will not touch a downed aircraft. In South Vietnam, they tend to pilfer the crash site for metals, and bury the remains.”

Remains are generally more intact on a battlefield, than those damaged from the impact of a plane crash. Remains from World War II are often in better shape than those from Vietnam, Mr. Greer said.

“The soil in Vietnam is very acidic, which can be detrimental,” he explained. “Sometime we only have a tooth to go on.”

When newly discovered remains arrive at Hickam Air Force Base, site of the Central Identification Lab, there’s a formal arrival ceremony often attended by veterans, community members and active-duty military. After preliminary identification, a DPMO team contacts family members to supply a DNA sample, make a positive identification and formally accept the remains. Burial plans commence.

“The reactions are often mixed among our families. Sometimes they are amazed, and always they are appreciative that the military would continue this effort. They feel relief,” Mr. Greer said. “Some will never get over the fact their brother, or their father didn’t come home. We try to give them a final chapter, and a final page in that story.”

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