NEW ALBANY, Ohio (AP) — Pamela Sconiers Whitelock likes to say the search for the remains of her uncle, a World War II bombardier who became a German prisoner of war, has been like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Jarrod Burks, a central Ohio archaeologist who is in Poland now hoping to find the grave of 1st Lt. Ewart Sconiers, sees it differently: “I say it’s like looking for a needle in a stack of needles,” said Burks, director of archaeological geophysics at Ohio Valley Archaeology in Columbus.
Still, he is hopeful. With years of research and old photos of Sconiers’ burial service in January 1944 as clues, and data from his own study of the land during a trip to Lubin, Poland, in 2012, Burks and his team of four will spend this month digging two trenches — each 10 feet by 25 feet — in a corner of what was a cemetery but is now a public park.
“We’re just normal archaeologists, and we do archaeology in Ohio all the time,” Burks said. “This is no different. It’s just in Poland.”
The federal government’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which is trying to account for and recover missing American troops and to communicate with families of the missing, is funding the mission. Ohio Valley Archaeology’s contract for the work is $124,486.
The Department of Defense lists 83,118 American troops as unrecovered or unaccounted for overseas, with 73,515 of them from World War II. Since October, the beginning of the federal budget year, the government has completed 28 missions. Five are ongoing, and four more are scheduled to begin before the budget year ends on Sept. 30, according to Maj. Natasha Waggoner, an agency spokeswoman.
Burks’ team left on Aug. 5, and Whitelock is communicating with them daily from her New Albany home. She used her own money, raised contributions and got in-kind donations to finance Burks’ trip in 2012 to study the land in what is now known as Allies Park. Any traces of where graves used to be are gone, but Burks has used his expertise and archaeological sleuthing to narrow the possibilities to two corners where Sconiers’ remains could be.
“I feel amazement and gratitude and awe about the extent to which America keeps its promises to bring its military service personnel home,” said Whitelock, 67. “To get to this point, where we have the best possible chance, we just couldn’t ask for more.”
Her family, all originally from Florida, always knew of Sconiers’ most-legendary war story: In August 1942 while on a mission to the Netherlands, he took the controls of a B-17 bomber, the Johnny Reb, after its pilot and co-pilot were killed in a dogfight. He saved the crew by safely guiding the plane to a landing.
But in October of that year, his plane was shot down and he was taken prisoner and held in Stalag Luft III. His wife and his parents were notified in 1944 that he had died at age 29.
Photos of what appeared to be a burial fell into the hands of the family, but Whitelock said they always believed they were fake, nothing but Nazi propaganda, as evidenced by the swastikas prominent in the photos. Everyone assumed that Sconiers was buried in a mass grave somewhere that had never been found.
But after Whitelock retired to Ohio in 2007, a series of chance happenings led her to a historian and a consultant in Poland — and eventually a former U.S. military officer who was also a prisoner and at the burial — who confirmed that the photos were real. And a former POW told her the truth about Sconiers’ death: He had an untreated ear infection that led to meningitis and mental deterioration. He was taken to a hospital in Lubin, where he died. As an officer, he got a burial from the Germans.
Burks has used some of the clues from the photos to supplement the ground-penetrating radar study of the land that he made on his first visit.
As in any recovery operation of suspected U.S. troops, any remains Burks and his team find will be sent to a military facility in Hawaii and compared with DNA samples. If Sconiers’ remains are found, they’ll be sent home to DeFuniak Springs, in the Florida panhandle, where he always wanted to end his days.
“For these 30 days that Jarrod’s team is on this mission, there won’t be a minute that this isn’t on my mind,” Whitelock said. “So many American families have waited a lifetime for answers, and so many are still waiting. I just feel like this is our turn.”
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com
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