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DPAA In The News

News 2 | Feb. 17, 2023

DPAA reaches 50 identifications for the Huertgen Forest Project

By Dr. Traci Van Deest and Dr. Ian Spurgeon

On December 12, 2022, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) announced that Private First Class William L. Simon had been accounted-for, nearly 78 years after he was killed fighting German forces near the town of Germeter, Germany, during World War II. Simon’s identification answered his family’s questions and marked the 50th identification of DPAA’s Huertgen Forest Project. The completion of 50 IDs is a significant achievement for the initiative, which formally began in 2016, shortly after the establishment of DPAA. The agency began with a list of 200 unidentified Americans who died in or near the Huertgen Forest.

The Huertgen Forest Project began 15 years ago, when analysts at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), a precursor to DPAA, began compiling a list of unsolved American losses, as well as archival research on the US Army's combat activities in the Huertgen. Because of this wealth of historical data, the Battle of the Huertgen Forest was a perfect campaign for a ground loss project for the DPAA's new Europe-Mediterranean Directorate.

“Trying to find missing American soldiers in the Huertgen Forest is a daunting prospect,” said Dr. Ian Spurgeon, a historian in the directorate who took over the Huertgen Forest cases in 2016. “The difficult terrain and the overall chaos on the battlefield there made the region one of the most horrible places for soldiers during World War II. Veterans of the fighting often did not know the fate of their comrades. Yet, with seven decades of historical information, good communication with researchers across the world, and new scientific techniques, we knew we could bring many of those soldiers home.”

While few people today recognize the name Huertgen, the location should sound as familiar to Americans as other distant World War II battlefields, such as Normandy, Guadalcanal, Bastogne, and Iwo Jima. More American divisions battled in the Huertgen than at the renowned defense of Bastogne; the conflict lasted nearly twice as long as the campaign in Normandy; and more Americans died in that woodland than on the islands of Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal combined. The Huertgen Forest Battle is primarily forgotten in American military history, owing to the atrocities of the battle. It is a 50-square-mile-large, thickly forested, an undulating region in Germany near the Belgian border. It was an unsuitable setting for an offensive campaign. Due to unfavorable terrain, tanks and artillery were at times halted, leaving American foot forces alone against a seemingly unending line of German defenders. American troops first entered the forest in September 1944 with hopes of a rapid advance against a German Army retreating from northern France. Instead, the U.S. Army was trapped in warfare for nearly six months not securing the remaining areas of the woodland until February 1945. During the combat in the Huertgen Forest, almost 34,000 Americans were killed, injured, or captured. In contrast, the defeated German Army suffered approximately 28,000 casualties.

Private First Class Simon was among thousands of U.S. soldiers who lost their lives during the campaign. His remains, like hundreds of other Americans killed in the Huertgen, could not be recovered during the fighting. The harsh terrain, terrible weather conditions, ongoing threat of landmines, German artillery fire, and tactical situation, hindered the evacuation of the wounded. It often forced front line troops to leave their fallen comrades in place for others to find later.

Army burials registration investigators recovered hundreds of American remains from the Huertgen Forest between 1945 and 1951. Many of the fallen were discovered when German demining teams painstakingly and methodically cleared hundreds of thousands of landmines from the region. By this time, the remains were often in poor condition and their possessions and identification tags were missing. Nonetheless, American Graves Registration Command (AGRC) officials did an outstanding job recovering and identifying most American casualties from the Huertgen Forest. By 1951 less than 300 were accounted for of the thousands of men who lost their lives there. They had found more Americans in the forest, but around 170 of the remains recovered could not be identified with the 1940s and 1950s technology.

Around 1951, the U.S. government stopped looking for Huertgen Forest casualties. The World War II Return of the Dead Program ended, and the Army prioritized graves registration efforts on the ongoing Korean War. Over the next 65 years, German farmers, construction crews, and metal detectorists in the Huertgen Forest occasionally stumbled across remains of an American in an old foxhole or isolated grave, and the Department of Defense dutifully recovered and identified them, bringing the total number of missing down even further. Then, in the 2000s, JPAC resurrected the search for missing Americans in the Huertgen through proactive research and investigations, paving the way for the DPAA Huertgen Forest Project.

Identifying Americans who went missing during a ground conflict eight decades ago is challenging. Ground loss work poses different problems to DPAA historians and scientists than the numerous air loss sites investigated and excavated each year. During World War II, aircraft crashes frequently imprinted the psyche and terrain of a tiny European town. Even after 80 years, DPAA investigators often discover clear records, public memory, and occasionally surviving witnesses within European towns that recall the day a bomber crashed nearby.

“I’ve spoken to elderly French and German citizens who can describe, in great detail, the day they saw an American plane crash in their community in 1944,” Dr. Spurgeon said. “We can use their statements to determine exactly what type of plane they saw and where it crashed.”

Though the location looks deserted so many years after the war, metal detectors and archaeological survey can swiftly confirm the presence of aircraft debris beneath the surface. An excavation crew can then recover minute amounts of human remains from the crash site for DNA testing and anthropological analysis. When dozens or hundreds of men are missing from ground battles, those tried-and-true tactics don't function nearly as well on a vast battlefield.

“Most residents in the Huertgen Forest had evacuated their homes when the two armies fought there in 1944 and 1945,” Dr. Spurgeon continued. “When they returned, their communities were virtually destroyed. When I ask them about missing American infantry soldiers, I am almost always met with shrugs. They do not know the fate of a single soldier among thousands who fought in the area.”

Even when DPAA historians determine a general area where a missing soldier was likely killed, they cannot use the same techniques for surveying a plane crash site, since millions of bullets, shrapnel, and other battle debris litter the Huertgen soil. Metal detection surveys are of little value.

As a result, discovering the missing in Huertgen Forest requires innovative and collaborative methods. The DPAA’s Huertgen Forest project is a joint endeavor between historians, scientists, foreign area liaisons, and partner organizations such as the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System DNA Identification Lab (AFDIL). It also receives tremendous assistance from third-party organizations, such as the University of Osnabrück in Germany, Stichting M.I.A. in the Netherlands, and several independent researchers in the United States and Europe.

“Working with researchers and groups across the world is a vital part of the Huertgen Project.” Dr. Spurgeon said. “Not only do they help by sharing historical information that is not available within U.S. government archives, but many of the European researchers spend far more time on the ground in the Huertgen than we can and therefore are experts of the battle sites. By working together, we all better understand the battle and can more accurately reconstruct the circumstances and locations of missing soldiers.”

The project has three main phases: 1) individual case analysis, 2) the disinterment of Unknown remains previously recovered from the Huertgen Forest, and 3) field investigation and excavation. While these phases in general follow the above sequential order, they inherently overlap and data gathered during each inform the others.

A DPAA historian investigates the specific circumstances of each missing American soldier, writes a narrative describing this information for the soldier's family and historical reference, and records that person's last known location (based on witness accounts or the soldier's unit located at the time of their loss) on a geographical information systems (GIS) database. When seen collectively, this data allows the historian to create a geographical map depicting the dispersal of casualties across the Huertgen's 50 square kilometers of territory. As a result, the Huertgen Project investigates the missing as individuals and as a group.

In 2015, the Department of Defense established a new policy that allows DPAA and its partner agencies to disinter the remains of unidentified American service members from military cemeteries after a thorough and lengthy approval process. The policy is meant to protect the sanctity of the grave, ensuring that our nation’s fallen heroes are exhumed only with sufficient evidence that the Unknown remains will likely be identified. Therefore, DPAA must provide the Department of the Army with a historical and scientific justification for each disinterment. Starting from the individual case analysis, the DPAA historian turns to the unidentified remains found previously in the Huertgen Forest. The AGRC found but could not identify around 170 sets of remains across the Huertgen battle area by field teams in the 1940s and 1950s. These remains were buried as Unknown soldiers in ABMC cemeteries in Europe. Historians can make historical and circumstantial connections by reviewing the grave registration records and maps of these remains. The DPAA anthropologists and odontologists then compare available documentation of the Unknown remains, such as skeletal and tooth charts, to the personnel records of the missing soldiers on the historian’s list. When historians and scientists agree that a set of unidentified remains likely can be identified as one of the missing Americans on the list, they recommend that the Unknown be exhumed and sent to the DPAA laboratory for a full scientific evaluation.

Since 2015, 96 sets of previously recovered Unknown remains from the Huertgen Forest have been disinterred and transferred to the DPAA Laboratory at Offutt AFB, Nebraska for analysis and testing. When the remains arrive at the laboratory, they are subjected to the accredited laboratory's strict protocols and procedures before being evaluated by a forensic anthropologist and forensic odontologist. The anthropologist's job begins with inventorying the remains and deciding which bones will be examined for DNA. These samples are subsequently forwarded to the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) for examination and comparison to DNA references provided by family members of missing service members from the Huertgen Forest. Anthropological analysis continues to estimate the biological profile of the remains sex, age, ancestry, and stature, and check for any trauma present in the remains. Furthermore, the skeleton may contain alterations related to a person’s life events, such as a broken bone early in life. This data is then compared to the information for each of the missing service members to determine who matches a specific set of remains. Are they the same age? Are they the same height? When the estimated biological profile of the remains is consistent with a service member, they are still a candidate for this case. This is one line of evidence used to help narrow down the list of possible service members for a given set of remains.

A forensic odontologist also examines the dental remains to see which teeth are present, which are missing, and if there is any dental work present. This information is then compared to the dental charts known for each of the missing service members. If data discrepancy exists between teeth found in the remains of missing military personnel this could be explained or unexplained. An explainable difference would be a tooth that got a filling after the date of the last available dental record for a missing service member, since not all records are complete or available. An unexplainable difference would be if a specific tooth is present in the remains but was recorded as pulled in the records for a given service member. This would mean that the remains were not likely that person.

Once the DNA testing and comparisons by AFDIL and DPAA anthropological analysis and dental examinations are completed, the results are compared to the DPAA historian's list of missing soldiers lost in that area of the Huertgen Forest. When a service member is known to have been lost in the same area the remains were discovered, have a family reference DNA sample that matches the DNA of the remains, the same biological profile, and is also consistent with the teeth that are present, the case is then presented to the DPAA Medical Examiner for identification.

“As all the types of analyses are completed, the results begin to narrow down the list of candidates for a specific case. When each test points toward one individual Soldier, all the pieces fall into place for an identification,” said Dr. Traci L. Van Deest, the DPAA Laboratory Huertgen Forest Project Lead.

DPAA historians and scientific recovery experts routinely travel to the Huertgen Forest to develop leads and search for the missing. The leads would not be possible without the network of third-party individuals and groups working together engaged in various projects within the Huertgen Forest. Additionally, DPAA keeps in contact with local authorities and residents for any new discovery of remains by individuals living and working throughout the Huertgen Forest battle area.
One of the 50 Huertgen identifications made by DPAA was from such a discovery. Private First Class Gerald Wipfli’s unidentified remains were found by a German work crew in Schmidt and turned over the U.S. Department of Defense leading to DPAA identifying his remains in 2017.

Each Unknown soldier that DPAA identifies means one more American service member returned to a family, community, and nation. It also means one less American DPAA is searching for in the Huertgen Forest.

“Each identification is the unique story of one Soldier and their journey home. It is a great honor to be part of the team that continues the work started by the brothers in arms of those still missing,” Dr. Van Deest said. “Seeing the Soldiers going back to their families who have waited decades for answers is the most fulfilling part of this job.”