A team of US veterans have begun digging up a field in England in the hope of finding the remains of three missing airmen – 77 years after their deaths in World War II.
Members of the American Veterans Archaeological Recovery (AVAR) say they are hopeful of finally bringing their fallen compatriots home from the site of their plane crash in the southern county of West Sussex.
Back in June 1944, just two weeks after Allied troops landed in France on D-Day, a B-24 was severely damaged by anti-aircraft fire while carrying out a bombing raid near Paris.
Though the aircraft was badly disabled, the crew somehow managed to navigate back towards the English coast. However as it approached, the pilot gave the order to bail out. Seven of the crew exited successfully, but the pilot, co-pilot, and flight engineer were still aboard when it crashed into a field at Park Farm in the town of Arundel.
The bomber was part of the 489th Bomb Group, an American unit which operated out of RAF Halesworth, Suffolk, in 1944, and flew tactical missions in support of ground forces in northern France.
Parts of the bomber were recovered in salvage operations during the 1970s and 1980s, but the search for the occupants’ remains is taking place this month – with the dig set to last four weeks.
Members of AVAR have joined forces with the University of York in the hope of finding the remains, identifying them and repatriating them to the United States.
More than 72,000 Americans who served in World War II are still unaccounted for, according to the US Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), which partners with AVAR on recovery efforts.
Leading this project is Stephen Humphreys, CEO of AVAR, who is “optimistic” that the mission will bring closure for any surviving relatives.
Though he cannot divulge specific details about their investigations, the former US Air Force captain told CNN: “The reason this is so important is that America makes a commitment that no matter where you are when you fall, they are going to still come back and recover you.
“All of us veterans, including myself, take comfort in knowing that we are not going to be forgotten.”
Humphreys told CNN that his on-site team is made up of US veterans – who had to quarantine upon arrival in the UK – British veterans and members of the local community.
He said: “The people in this area have been protecting this crash site for the last 77 years so we want them to be as involved as they want to be in the recovery operation.”
While some do have archaeological experience, most received training on site.
Among those offering their support is James Seller, the farmer who owns the crash site. His father was a young boy at the time and witnessed the tragic event – and later went on to ensure the site was preserved over subsequent decades.
There is a memorial to the airmen at the edge of the field, with two American flags.
Soil at the site is being removed by digger and carefully deposited on tarpaulins for examination. The team then painstakingly sift through the earth by hand in search of anything from the accident, Humphreys explained.
Finding personal effects will help the team pinpoint human remains, he told the UK agency PA Media.
“It’s all about making the details of the excavation as precise as we possibly can so that we can be as precise as we need to be in terms of being able to say where those individual finds came from out of the ground while we’re looking for those airmen,” he said.
The dig is being conducted as part of Operation Keeping Faith, a partnership between DPAA and AVAR, which offers veterans the chance to work on archaeological sites to gain skills and boost mental well-being.