ARLINGTON, Va. –
The 93-year-old veteran walked the Dutch farm called Den Heuvel where in 1944 his forces were locked in a deadly battle with Nazis as part of Operation Market Garden. With Department of Defense historians listening, Moffatt Burriss, the former commander of Company I, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, pointed to the locations where three of his still Missing in Action Soldiers perished seven decades earlier.
Parachuting deep into German-held Netherlands territory, the Allies were to secure bridges for an invasion into Germany from the North. However, the German strength was underestimated and the operation ultimately failed to achieve its objectives during the final days of September 1944. As many as 20,000 Allied airborne soldiers participated in the operation, as did more than 3,600 Allied bombers, fighters and transport aircraft. Previous defense accounting organizations began proactive work on Market Garden cases as a group in 2014, starting with an oral history collection effort with veterans at the 70th Anniversary events in the Netherlands, which included the walk with Burriss.
"It was one of the coolest things I’ve done in this job," said Dr. Ian Spurgeon, DPAA Europe-Mediterranean Directorate historian. "During our conversation, he told the story of the Waal River crossing, which had occurred before the fighting at Den Heuvel, since the river crossing is much more famous and everyone ends up asking him about it."
Burriss’ actions in the Waal River Crossing on September 20, 1944, and the capture of the Nijmegen Bridge were portrayed in the movie “A Bridge Too Far.”
“He told the story of how the combat engineer steering his canvas boat was killed right next to him and he had to push the body into the river to keep the boat going straight," Spurgeon said.
Unbeknownst to the historians, this combat engineer was still listed as missing in action.
"We initially didn’t pay much attention to that story in 2014, because we didn’t know the engineer’s name at the time and because we were focused on the three other Soldiers," Spurgeon explained.
In 2016, another historian examined an X-file of a Soldier pulled from the Waal River some 40 miles downstream from where the fighting had been.
“By this time, we were tracking that Pfc. Willard Jenkins was a missing casualty and, with the help of Dutch historian Frank van Lunteren’s book about the 504th Parachute Infantry in Market Garden, had come to realize that we had spoken to the last man who saw Jenkins alive—and the Soldier who had actually pushed his body into the river,” Spurgeon said. “That gave us far greater information about Jenkins’ circumstances of loss than found in the other records.”
According to historical records, on Sept. 29, 1944, two residents of Werkendam, Netherlands, were in a rowboat on the Waal River when they saw a body in the river. German soldiers stationed nearby took possession of the remains and buried them on the riverbank.
In late August 1948, an investigator from the American Graves Registration Command visited the Werkendam area and inquired about the remains. The AGRC learned that a person of the Information Bureau for missing English flyers had been to Werkendam to examine the remains and determined them to be of American nationality, and had them moved to Werkendam General Cemetery. The remains were disinterred on Sept. 17, 1948, and sent to the Identification Section at the U.S. Military Cemetery at Neuville-en-Condroz, Belgium, for further analysis. The remains could not be identified and were buried as Unknown X-7838 Neuville on Oct. 1, 1948.
After thorough research and historical analysis, historians from DPAA determined that Jenkins was a strong candidate for association to the remains. This was supported by DPAA anthropologists and odontologists who reviewed the available biological information in the historical records of both Jenkins and X-7838 Neuville. On April 18, 2018, X-7838 Neuville was disinterred and sent to DPAA.
To identify Jenkins’ remains, scientists from DPAA used dental and anthropological analysis, as well as circumstantial evidence. He was buried in his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania in September 2018, 2018, 74 years after he went missing.
In 2015, less than a year after defense historians interviewed Burris, the Department of Defense created DPAA. The agency’s new European-Mediterranean directorate sent its first field investigation team to the Netherlands to conduct battle site visits with information gathered from that 2014 research trip. Since then, with the help of the Bergings- en Identificatiedienst Koninklijke Landmacht (BIDKL) [Recovery and Identification Unit Royal (Netherlands) Army ], and numerous Dutch researchers, DPAA has identified 10 soldiers previously missing from that campaign. The agency is currently tracking 52 soldiers still missing in the Netherlands and some neighboring German communities from Operation Market Garden.
In addition to Unknown graves buried in American Battle Monument Cemeteries, several cases have come from unilateral turnovers, according to Dr. Traci Van Deest, the DPAA Laboratory Operation Market Garden Project Lead and forensic anthropologist. This means remains are found by locals in the area and turned over to authorities who in turn give the remains over to DPAA.
Of the identifications made since 2015, eight were from disinterments and two from unilateral turnovers.
"The most rewarding part is to be able to provide answers to family and loved ones," Van Deest said.
Making an identification at DPAA requires multiple lines of evidence to include DNA, forensic anthropology, forensic odontology, historical evidence, archaeology and material evidence.
"The cases and identifications are all unique and different," Van Deest said.
As the Greatest Generation’s heroes, with their first-person account of Operation Market Garden, fade away, researchers are continuing their quest to provide answers to families and give names to those buried as Unknowns from the Market Garden battlefield. The science adds another layer of evidence to provide answers to families and sometimes it can reveal the whole truth. For the family of SSgt David Rosenkrantz, that was the case.
“We visited the location where my uncle was killed,” said Phil Rosenkrantz, the sergeant’s nephew who spent several decades pursuing his loved one’s case and would go onto write a book entitled “Letters from Uncle Dave” about the family’s experience. “It was quite an adventure.”
Sgt. Rosenkrantz, who joined the Army in 1942 in Los Angeles, served with Company H, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment in the famed 82nd Airborne Division. By Sept. 27, 1944, the 504th Regiment found itself southeast of Nijmegen, at the northern edge of the town of Groesbeek, which sits near the Netherlands’ border with Germany. The open farmland became a makeshift landing zone for Allied gliders in the early days of Market Garden, but now showed the scars of a battlefield with abandoned equipment, according to the case file for Rosenkrantz.
As dawn broke the next day, the enemy fired 2,000 shells of artillery for half an hour in an area about 900 square feet. The Germans followed the firepower with a ground assault of tanks and machine gun fire, forcing the Americans to withdraw and take cover. The plan now was to wait until dark and sneak back to stronger Allied defensive lines.
Sometime after 4:00 PM, as the isolated paratroopers hid among the sparse trees and buildings, Sgt. Rosenkrantz suddenly scrambled past another soldier, crouched behind a tree, and then rose to shoot at some Germans to the east. He did not know that other enemy soldiers had approached from the side.
“Rosy! Rosy! Get Down!” yelled his fellow sergeant.
The warning came too late, as gun fire erupted.
The regiment was unable to search for their lost comrade due to exposure to the enemy and fell back to American lines with nightfall. The territory would remain in German hands until early 1945.
In 2014, defense historians traveled to the location of Rosekrantz’s death with his nephew and a local expert, Ben Overhand. They recorded the likely site where partial remains and Rosenkrantz’s dog tags along with bone fragments had been found in the 1940s. An excavation the next year yielded no results.
The historians kept digging through archival records and learned that some American losses were buried by Canadian forces who finally pushed the Germans back from the farm in 1945.
“In the Netherlands, in this Market Garden area, British and Canadian graves registration teams were often first to recover Americans from the battlefields. If they knew the remains were American, they turned them over, but some of these remains were found several months after the Soldier was killed or temporarily buried. So, they took those to a British or Canadian Cemetery as an Allied soldier until they could better determine the nationality. That is what happened with Sergeant Rosenkrantz,” Spurgeon explained.
It is unclear on what date the Canadians transferred the remains to AGRC control, but American forces interred the remains as Unknown X-1234 at what is now the Netherlands American Cemetery, Margraten, on July 28, 1945. Historians and scientists at DPAA studied the X-1234 Margraten file and determined that the remains could be Sergeant Rosenkrantz. In June 2017, the X-1234 remains were exhumed for scientific testing and identification.
In 2018, DPAA announced the identification of the California native, 74 years after he was shot by the enemy on a heavily traversed battlefield. To identify Rosenkrantz’ remains, scientists from DPAA and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial (mtDNA) DNA analysis, which matched his family; dental and anthropological analysis, which matched his records; and circumstantial evidence.
The DNA is what proved Sergeant Rosenkrantz had been buried as an Unknown Soldier 90 miles away from the battlefield where he died, said Phil.
“That is why we are reaching out to the 82nd Airborne families and Associations to help with family reference samples and any information,” Spurgeon explained.
A family member of an unaccounted for person may submit DNA for use in comparison for identification purposes if the family member shares a genetic relationship with the unaccounted for person. AFMES-AFDIL uses nuclear (Y-STR and au-STR) and mtDNA for identifications. Nuclear DNA is found in almost every human cell and is unique to an individual. Parents, grandparents, children, and grandchildren are the best references for nuclear DNA. For mtDNA which is passed down through the mother and is the most resistant to environmental factors, siblings and relatives with the same maternal lineage share this DNA.
Sergeant Rosenkrantz’ sister provided her DNA four months before she passed away, said Phil.
Past conflict accounting relies on DNA comparisons using a database of Family Reference Samples (FRS). If there are no viable FRS for a loved one, artifacts from the missing service member such as hairbrushes, baby teeth, or watches may provide suitable DNA reference material.
“There is still active research for these Airborne guys [lost in Market Garden],” Phil said. “If there is no DNA, they are probably not going to find them.”
People who may have information about a family member lost in Operation Market Garden or wish to provide a DNA sample, please contact the Army Service Casualty Office at 1 (800) 892-2490 or visit DPAA at www.dpaa.mil and view the Family Member Guide for more information.