Europeans join US in search for remains of missing American soldiers
SINZ, Germany — It didn’t take long for the metal detectors to start pinging among the patch of trees outside this rural village in southwestern Germany.
On a recent late autumn morning, an international group of volunteers dressed in orange jumpsuits fanned out across a small section of the Bannholz Woods looking for the remains of two Americans missing in action since World War II.
Digging through several layers of earth, they found bucketfuls of bullets, dirt-caked hand grenades and a pair of German steel Army helmets so rusted they might have broken into pieces if not handled carefully. It was a stark reminder that this picturesque countryside, tucked among rolling hills and farmers’ fields near the borders with France and Luxembourg, witnessed fierce fighting between American and German soldiers during the final, brutal months of World War II. Several times the Americans tried to take the woods north of the tiny village of Sinz, and both sides suffered heavy casualties.
A group of some 30 volunteers came to the Bannholz Woods with shovels, metal detectors, maps and buckets to begin combing the area shortly after dawn. The Association for the Recovery of the Fallen in Eastern Europe — whose members come from Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Poland and other European countries — was conducting a search to find two American soldiers missing in action. Since 1992, the group has conducted more than 150 searches all over Europe, but Bannholz Woods marked the first search done in coordination with the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA.
“They have the search capability so it’s really going to be a perfect match, we think,” said Col. Chris Forbes, director of DPAA’s new Europe-Mediterranean Directorate.
DPAA, created about a year ago in a merger of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, is revitalizing the U.S. military’s efforts to find some 20,000-25,000 U.S. servicemembers still missing in action since World War II across the European and Mediterranean theaters.
The reorganization was ordered in 2014 by then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to address misconduct and poor management practices by the PREVIOUS Pentagon organizations responsible for recovering and identifying the remains of America’s war dead.
The previous agency, JPAC, was mainly focused on the Pacific — mostly Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Forbes said. “During the monsoon seasons they would send some teams to Europe, but really this was kind of a side activity, compared to the main activity” in Asia.
“This is really the first time that a focused effort on Europe by this agency has occurred, probably since 1951,” he said.
As it steps up efforts in Europe, DPAA, now based in Washington, is looking to outside agencies and experts to expand and improve the overall effort. Local groups and individuals speak the language and are better able to get historical information from residents, and they can return to a site again and again, until remains are found or a search is exhausted.
“It’s a significant opportunity for us to return many, many more servicemembers to their families,” said Jeffrey Brlecic, a retired colonel who runs DPAA’s Europe detachment in Miseau, where he works with U.S. and German government agencies to coordinate access for potential search sites with landowners and tenant farmers.
DPAA is seeking to build a partnership with the Association for the Recovery of the Fallen in Eastern Europe — known by its German initials, VBGO. It’s a relationship several years in the making, rooted in a friendship between two men with professional and personal interests in World War II.
Chris Seiwert, 59, a German criminal attorney, was frustrated by U.S. investigators’ failure to follow up on potential leads regarding missing-in-action Americans near his home in Dillingen.
After reading an article in Stars and Stripes about the problems the former JPAC was having, he posted a comment to the story online, describing how he and others had found the ID bracelets of two American soldiers near Sinz. One belonged to Frank Rasmussen, a machine gunner who was 18 when he was killed in action on his first day in combat. Seiwert by chance had read about Rasmussen in a book about the 94th Infantry Division and recognized the name.
“I think we called … the U.S. Army or JPAC, but there was no reaction; nothing,” Seiwert said.
Josh Fennell, a historian in Washington with the Europe-Mediterranean branch of DPAA, saw Seiwert’s comment and contacted him. “Something about his comment told me he was a little frustrated that he hadn’t gotten a response,” Fennell said. “But also it seemed like he had legitimate information that he wanted to share.”
Fennell found in Seiwert an invaluable local expert, someone who grew up in the Saar valley in southwest Germany.
“We have a lot of ground losses there and over the border in France, so that’s an area I’ve been interested in for a while,” Fennell said.
“Growing up, the remnants of World War II were all around him,” Fennell said of Seiwert. “It’s just integral to who he is, and we find that across Europe.”
Seiwert’s father fought in Russia as a teenager, and his mother told vivid stories of living through the war, including seeing an American P-47 Thunderbolt crash in the river near her house.
As a boy, Seiwert and childhood friend, Peter Jung, combed the outlying woods near their homes for World War II artifacts.
“It was just an adventure to go through the woods and look for this stuff, despite it was forbidden by the police and especially our parents,” Seiwert said.
The boys found all sorts of war relics —soldiers’ belt buckles, an American submachine gun, a steel helmet shot through with a bullet hole.
In 1977, they found the skeletal remains of a German private first class buried in a former trench. “His right hand had gone, his right shoulder had gone. Both jaw bones were gone. He was hit by a mortar shell, probably,” Seiwert said.
It was Seiwert’s first time finding bones. “I was astonished that there were still German soldiers in these woods,” he said. “He still had his wallet, some letters in it, a pen, some stamps, a little bit of money.” Alfred Obal, from the former eastern German city of Breslau, was still wearing his wedding ring with the name of his wife engraved on it.
Despite the thrill of looking for war remnants, Seiwert put his hobby on pause while he attended law school and later, as he balanced a busy career with raising a family.
But in the early 1990s, the end of the Cold War opened up a remarkable opportunity to search in Russia — where there are still one million German soldiers missing — and the rest of eastern Europe. For years, while the Berlin Wall stood, eastern Germany felt as distant as the moon, Seiwert said.
Seiwert and Jung formed the nonprofit VBGO in 1992 starting with about 18 members. The association allowed the members to conduct formal searches. “As a private person, you can’t go into the fox holes and trenches” and legally search, Seiwert said.
In the more than two decades of searching, VBGO has recovered more than 7,500 sets of remains all over Europe, but has only been able to identify a little more than 25 percent of those, because of the level of decomposition and lack of idnetifying markers. Many of the German soldiers are found with metal dog tags, Seiwert said, but Russian soldiers often have no identification remaining.
Unlike in the United States, there is no government-funded organization in Germany dedicated to finding and identifying the war dead. The German War Graves Commission receives a mix of mostly private with some federal funding to locate, safeguard and maintain German war graves in Germany and abroad. Its teams search for mass graves, but not usually for individual soldiers.
Albrecht Laue, VBGO’s president, became interested in VBGO’s work to find out what happened to his grandfather, who was killed on the Eastern Front. But he soon found there were many more families like his. “Someone has to do something,” he said. “There are still families searching for their relatives.”
VBGO aims to give the missing soldiers a proper funeral, even if it can’t identify them all. Its members have grown to more than 200, representing numerous countries in Europe.
“It’s to give these soldiers back their dignity,” Seiwert said.
The group did just that for Lawrence Burkett, a 28-year-old private in the U.S. Army who was killed Dec. 11, 1944, in fighting in the woods near Dillingen, after his unit, the 90th Infantry Division, came under attack. In 2006, VBGO searchers unearthed bones with dog tags that read “Burkett.”
VBGO turned over the case to an American team that conducted its own search of the area. Burkett’s remains were eventually returned to his three children, including a son who was only 3 months old when his father was killed.
For the Bannholz Woods search, Fennell sent Seiwert the case files of the two missing Americans about nine months ago.
“Chris had asked me, ‘Do you think anybody who is missing is still in that area?’” Fennell recalled. “After looking through our records, I was able to find that there are at least those two individuals, who are probably still somewhere in the Bannholz Woods.”
Handing the search over to VBGO is “like having a time machine,” Fennell said.
“Nothing is guaranteed,” he added, “and there’s still a lot of work that still has to be done.” But working with VBGO “is giving us the potential to bring these men back home to their families years before we would have gotten to this.”
Al Zelnis and Edward Ikebe fought with the 376th Infantry Regiment, 94th Infantry Division. They were both last seen on Feb. 10, 1945, in the Bannholz Woods.
On that day, the unit’s F Company was ordered to attack and take a section of the woods from the Germans, according to a written account by George Philip Whitman, then an Army captain and the company’s commander, in memories he compiled of the battle he called “Bloody Bannholz Woods.”
The Germans, Whitman wrote, were hunkered down with 11th Panzer Division Tiger tanks, mortars and machine gun nests on the far end and had so far rebuffed two attempts by the Americans to seize the area.
The Germans counterattacked. “The next few hours were a living hell,” he wrote.
“Their tanks, with impunity, were roaming the edge of the woods, blasting away and raking our defensive position with murderous machine gun fire.”
Whitman ordered his men to retreat, despite orders from his battalion commander to hold their ground. “Sorry, Colonel, it’s too late,” Whitman relayed via field telephone. “We are coming out. We are being murdered.”
Of the 127 men and officers of his company who participated in the attack, only 27 or so came out with Whitman, he wrote.
Zelnis was among those who never returned. He was struck in the head by a tree limb that fell into his fox hole, according to an eyewitness account included with his case file and shared with Stars and Stripes by Seiwert. The limb fell after a shell exploded on a nearby tree. “Tree bursts” were a tactic used by the German tanks of trying to target the Americans in their fox holes. The shells would hit the trees and explode, sending shrapnel flying in all directions.
“They tried to move the limb from the fox hole, but it was too big,” Seiwert said. Zelnis was never mentioned in German records as being taken as a prisoner of war, Seiwert said, “so it’s very likely he’s still in his fox hole.”
Edward Ikebe “just disappeared,” Seiwert said. “He was in the company, attacking. When they were retreating, Ikebe was missing.”
“He can be here, here, here,” Seiwert said, pointing to a map of the search area, which measures about 500 meters long and 150 meters wide.
“If we find nothing, we are going to get permission for other parts of the woods.”
Though Seiwert shared Zelnis’s and Ikebe’s case files with Stars and Stripes, no contact has been made with any of the families of the two men. “For DPAA and our partners, we generally ask that they do not contact the families,” Fennell said. One reason for this, is not wanting to get a family’s hopes up prematurely, he said.
Word spread locally, however, that the searchers were in the woods. A few hours into the November search, a graying farmer from Sinz walked up to some of the volunteers, who were taking a coffee break outside the woods.
His first name was Adolf, “like the Fuhrer,” the man said, without smiling.
Adolf Koster shares the same birthday as his namesake, April 20. He was born in 1937, when Adolf was still a common name for boys in Germany.
Koster held out several black and white photographs of the Bannholz Woods area taken soon after the war ended. The woods behind a German tank look decimated; there are nearly no trees standing. Another shows mounds of earthen graves, lined up in rows.
“They took dead Germans out of the woods; about 160,” Seiwert said, translating for Koster.
Koster told the group he’s certain there are more American and German remains to be found. “They couldn’t get them all out,” Seiwert said. The area was heavily mined and villagers “didn’t want to go into the woods because it was too dangerous.”
On July 29, 1945, Koster’s 5-year-old brother and two of his friends were killed when they stepped on an anti-tank mine while playing near the woods, he said.
“It was not nice here,” he said.
Though most if not all the mines have long been removed, none of VBGO’s searches come without risk. Volunteers must be insured and it helps that one of the group members is a German army bomb disposal expert. If large unexploded ordnance is unearthed, a team from the local government would be called.
The volunteers spread out in small groups throughout the forest with shovels and metal detectors.
During the course of several hours, they found a partial “track shoe” for a German tank and 50-caliber bullets made of phosphorous, designed to make a target burn upon impact. Some American-made armor piercings and a 30-caliber machine gun ammunition box were also dug up.
One group found a fox hole. In it, they found two German steel helmets, two razors, a canteen and cup, and a small shovel with a shrapnel hole.
Nearby, Arnd Maes pulled a World War II-era Bavarian medal from under at least a foot of dirt and fallen leaves.
He cracked a smile while holding up the rare find for the others to see, but said he’d be happier to find a missing soldier.
Despite the cluster of items, no bones were found; the searchers closed the hole back up after a few hours of digging.
The goal is to find bodies, of any nationality.
“They’re all victims of these wars,” Laue said.
Kathrina Straub, a VBGO volunteer from Switzerland, loves the hard, dirty, and often rewarding work involved in spending a day outdoors searching for the long ago war dead. She left before the crack of dawn and paid her own train fare to get to Sinz.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s German, American, British, Russian,” she said. “I’m happy for whoever we find and hope that at least we give them a decent burial and hopefully we can give them back their name.”
For most of the two days in the woods, there were no signs of Ikebe or Zelnis — until the last, waning hours. Maes found a U.S. Army canteen with initials scratched in on one side. The letters appear to be AJZ: Albert J. Zelnis. In the same spot, he found parts of an M-1 rifle, a fragment of a steel helmet with a shrapnel hole, and brass suspender parts.
Seiwert said it’s not known yet if the canteen belonged to Zelnis. It’s still being examined but searchers, he said, are hopeful.
They had to stop digging in that spot because it was getting dark but plan to return in January to dig some more.
“We’re going to keep on searching until we find them,” Seiwert said of Zelnis and Ikebe.
Fennell said ground losses are particularly challenging for researchers. “Unlike plane crashes … you never have absolute proof that the individual you’re looking for is buried in a defined location,” he said.
“Ultimately, you just have to pick a place where you know there was heavy combat and just do the best you can.”