Ramstein Airmen help find WWII heroes

Capt. Erin Dorrance
Kaiserslautern American

***image1***The Prisoner of War/Missing in Action motto “You Are Not Forgotten,” means even more than before to two Ramstein Airmen who were deployed to support missions looking for Americans who have been missing since World War II.

1st Lt. Chris Heinz, 76th Airlift Squadron C-21 pilot, and Senior Master Sgt. Frederick Smith, 435th Air Base Wing historian, deployed with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, to eastern Germany and Austria from August to September.

JPAC, formed in 2003, has a mission to account for Americans missing as a result of past U.S. conflicts. The command is based in Oahu, Hawaii, was formed by a merger of the Central Identification Laboratory and the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting.

Lieutenant Heinz and Sergeant Smith were both selected as volunteers to deploy with the JPAC teams because they are fluent in German. They were responsible for translating to acquire hotel accommodations, heavy equipment rentals, land ownership permissions as well as communications between JPAC and government agencies, mayors and witnesses, said Lieutenant Heinz, who picked up German in primary schools he attended for five years while his father was stationed with the U.S. Army in Munich and Karlsruhe.

Although the Airmen deployed with the expectation to translate, they experienced much more.

“While team members had specialties like medics, photographers, munitions experts and mortuary affairs, everyone had one primary mission – to dig, transport and sift soil to find the remains and artifacts,” said Sergeant Smith, who learned to speak German after spending 10 years of military assignments in Germany and through college classes that earned him a Bachelor’s degree in German from the University of Maryland.
Among digging and translating, the Airmen made several important discoveries.

While Lieutenant Heinz supported P-51 crash site digs near Torgau and Kassel, both located in Germany, the team discovered two aircraft and possible human remains. One of the sites revealed several artifacts including remains, weapons, boots and dog tags, he said.

“The most important find is human remains and personal artifacts that can be returned to their families,” Lieutenant Heinz said.

Many local media outlets covered the digs and witnesses made their way to the JPAC team to discuss their memories. Witnesses gave their accounts to the Ramstein-based linguists, revealing clues as to what happened, said Sergeant Smith.

Sergeant Smith’s dig in Vöstenhof, Austria, included a B-17 that crashed in 1944 while flying to Wiener Neustadt, Austria, to bomb a Messerschmitt aircraft factory. As the B-17 crashed with two crewmembers aboard, a 500-pound bomb exploded and spread debris over a large area. The two JPAC teams of 18 people excavated a 600-square-meter site with their hands and sieving tools to search for human remains or artifacts, he said.

Sergeant Smith had the opportunity to translate the story of a witness that
had seen the crash when he was only 10 years old. He explained his account of what happened which led the JPAC team to another site to be excavated.
“This mission was one of the most physically demanding and most psychologically rewarding assignments I’ve had in my 25 years of service – an assignment that gave me a great appreciation of JPAC and their efforts to find our MIAs,” said Sergeant Smith.

JPAC averages 100 identifications each year and has 18 teams almost continually on the road following leads and clues. The command’s motto rings true, “Until They Are Home.”