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DPAA In The News

News 2 | July 9, 2023

DPAA undertakes recovery mission in Italy during 80th anniversary of Operation Husky

By Staff Sgt. Blake Gonzales Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency

On July 10th, 1943, the Allied Powers prepared more than 3,000 ships, 150,000 ground troops, and 4,000 aircraft for a large-scale invasion of the island of Sicily, then controlled by the Nazi-led Axis Powers. Before sunrise, the massive assault would dismantle Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and become the first significant step in liberating Italy from fascist rule. The invasion was known as Operation Husky.

On that day, fighter and bomber groups were used to sow as much confusion and chaos as possible. Their objective was two-fold: weaken the enemy, and keep it from attacking the south, where land and sea forces would invade. Bombers had to hit as many targets as possible, while fighter groups were used to attack truck columns and aircraft positions.

One such bomber, with a crew of six American soldiers, never returned to its takeoff point at Hergla Airfield, Tunisia.

“It made landfall somewhere near Sciacca, and it turned northwards to attack the so-called ‘Phantom’ airport,” said Dr. Clive Vella, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) Scientific Recovery Expert (SRE) and Forensic Archeologist. “It was soon after hit and crashed just north of the airfield itself. The whole crew perished.”

This aircrew, along with approximately 24,850 American, British, and Canadian allies, paid the ultimate sacrifice to liberate Sicily, aiming to continue operations northward soon after. Although the conflict in Italy wasn’t over yet, the Allies had achieved a significant victory. Towards the end of the process, however, a month later, it came time to account for those killed in action; without them, victory would not have been possible.

“One of the crew members was recovered by locals and buried in a civilian cemetery in Sicily,” Vella said. “In September of 1943, the American Grave Registry Service (AGRS) found his remains. He was identified quickly as he had identifying media with him, and locals recorded his name. The AGRS investigators then traveled to the aircraft crash site to look for the others.”

Unfortunately, recovering the last five crew members wouldn’t be as easy.

“Two months later, there already wasn’t much left of the crash itself,” Vella said. “They could only see a motor from the crashed aircraft and other parts. That was it.”

With nothing to retrieve, the five remains would stay in Sicily as the war continued, a fate many suffered throughout the conflict. Now, on the 80th anniversary of the operation, a DPAA recovery team has returned to the original crash site with one goal: find the remaining lost crew members that made the ultimate sacrifice. This effort is one of several supported by DPAA to locate, return, and identify the approximately 72,000 service members unaccounted for from World War II.

“What brought us to the site first was this large-scale reinvestigation of losses in Sicily and Italy,” Vella said. “In 2017, researchers from the Europe-Mediterranean Directorate came here, relocated the site, and went through the process of recommending it for excavation. We were then here during another recovery mission in November and December of 2021, but we realized the site was larger than we originally thought in 2017. This is common in bomber crashes. We’re talking about extensive sites, sometimes scattered across different areas. So now, in 2023, we’re back here to excavate the other area of the original crash site.”

Upon arrival, the recovery team took approximately six days to complete the site setup and begin recovery operations. With a scheduled timeline of roughly 50 days, the team quickly began setting up an excavation grid and screening soil unit by unit, looking for anything related to the bomber crash. The team prioritized material evidence, life support equipment, and of course, potential osseous material and anything that might identify even one of the five missing service members.

“We brought about two containers worth of equipment, including buckets, piping systems, wire mesh, water pumps, tarps, and much more,” said U.S. Army Capt. Kyle Meariman, DPAA team leader. “Our team is composed of numerous professionals with different specialties. I’m responsible for the team overall, but we also have Dr. Vella as our SRE, who is responsible for the excavation, a Team Sergeant, who is essentially a foreman for the site, a Life Support Investigator, a forensic photographer, Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians, and medics. We also have multiple Soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, who are here to assist with the overall excavation.”

Large recovery sites with several individuals lost means there is a lot to dig and sift through. The team works a typical eight-to-10-hour day on site, with every hand on deck working to ensure the goal of the excavation is met.

“It really puts our whole agency mission in perspective,” Meariman said. “Being able to lead a team to a site when the 80th anniversary occurs while we’re searching for these heroes is truly something special. It means a lot.”

As the team continues to search for the last missing crew members, the impact of Operation Husky is not forgotten, nor are the implications of the work being done.

“The scale of World War II itself is pretty unimaginable to our minds nowadays,” Vella said. “When we do a lot of the investigations and the research, you’re lucky if you find someone who was maybe ten years old during the war. We’re talking about a 90-year-old at that point. Nowadays, their children carry on the local memories. I think being here on the anniversary of the incident is even more mystifying. It puts me in a situation of awe where I have to really think about that moment and how we can still help 80 years later. That’s not something I think we can do very often in our lives.”

All the team members use that reflection to push through the hard days. The summer sun is high and bright during most of the work, and it only takes a single shift of wet screening through hard clay, moving buckets, or digging soil for each member’s face to be covered in sweat. On the days when hands ache to no end and the monotony of the work becomes taxing, remembrance plays a vital role in motivating the team.

“The work that we do, the energy that goes into it, is nothing compared to the sacrifice that happened,” Vella said. “On your worse days, I find I have to just think about it in order to motivate myself. I like to tell the team this: I think about that C-17 moment at the end of a successful mission. The ability to get on that plane with something is everything. Hopefully, I have wrapped up the mission successfully and am able to say that I brought a possible case home, which may lead to good news for the families. We’re only here because others lost their lives and sacrificed so much for the nation. As someone who’s a naturalized citizen, that sacrifice is still not lost on me.”

With the hope of identifying the last five members in mind, all remember the 80th anniversary of Operation Husky as a motivating factor.

“There is still an understanding that what happened in World War II led us to a more peaceful future for many decades,” Vella said. “I am extremely grateful for that, and I’m extremely grateful for the families. Ultimately, if I’m being successful, I think that’s the best feeling imaginable to achieve your duty to help others.”