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Search for Missing WWII Troops’ Remains Prevails Over Pandemic

Anthropology Professor Collaborates With International Team to Recover Remains of Airmen Downed Outside Paris

By Rachael Keeney ’17

Researchers examine the site of a World War II plane crash

UMD anthropology assistant research professor Adam Fracchia (center) and Tiffany Saul (left), a forensic anthropologist from Middle Tennessee State University, examine the site of a World War II plane crash near Paris with Col. Allen Pepper from the U.S. Embassy. The researchers are working with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to locate the remains of some of the 72,000 Americans still listed as missing in action from the war.

Photo courtesy of Adam Fracchia

An ongoing mission to recover the remains of World War II troops still missing in action in Europe was delicate enough before COVID-19 travel restrictions threatened to derail the latest trip led by a University of Maryland anthropologist.

But a letter from the U.S. Embassy to the French government calling the work “essential” and the determination of a newly recruited cadre of international volunteers powered a two-month effort that Assistant Research Professor Adam Fracchia called a success.

“We took a bit of a leap of faith, but I think we learned a lot about what is possible and how much these projects mean to people in France as well as the U.S.,” he said.

UMD is one of the universities collaborating with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, charged with recovering the 81,600 American soldiers that it reports have never been accounted for from past conflicts, including 72,000 from WWII.

The agency, he said, “is always pushing technology to find and identify remains more efficiently and pushing the boundaries of science to improve how they can recover DNA.”

But the field school that Fracchia and Middle Tennessee State University’s (MTSU) Tiffany Saul put together—based on the model he and former UMD professor and forensic anthropologist Marilyn London established in Austria—was deemed impossible to execute in summer 2021 in France, due to the pandemic. In March or early April, MTSU said it could not allow students to go the site of the plane crash in a field outside of Paris.

Saul and Fracchia had less than two weeks to find enough people to staff the mission. They tapped several networks across Europe of people who were interested in WWII archaeology, forensic anthropology and aviation, and signed on about 15 archaeologists and volunteers.

One of those volunteers was Sarah Grady, an archaeologist and graduate of UMD’s Master’s in Applied Anthropology program who now lives in Paris. She had worked on two other missions with Fracchia in Austria.

“In this particular mission, there was a plaque in the town dedicated to the men on the plane at the crash site we were working on. We also made a trip to the D-Day beaches in Normandy where one soldier from our plane rests,” she said. “Both of these things connect you more to the work you're doing and makes you realize how truly important it is.”

Once they cleared that hurdle, they feared France wouldn’t allow them to enter the country. The letter of permission saved the mission that time, and Fracchia and Saul arrived in Paris on May 23.

There were more challenges, however. Participants had to wear masks, avoid eating in restaurants and adhere to a 9 p.m. curfew. “We even had to try to space out people sharing cabins and group people coming from the same location,” Fracchia said. “This created additional layers of work and planning that was piled on top of the logistical work that we normally have.”

The team found and submitted evidence to DPAA—the details of which cannot yet be disclosed due to the sensitive nature of the ongoing recovery—and they were able to see what future missions could look like.

“We relied heavily on our volunteers and their skill sets, and it was a collaborative and mutually beneficial model,” said Fracchia.

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