From Window Magazine: Bringing them home

Bill Belcher has traveled to remote locations all over the world in search of the remains of missing service members. | Photo courtesy of Bill Belcher

Dennis Hollier
Window Magazine

Like all archaeologists, Bill Belcher (’84, Anthropology; ’85, M.S., Anthropology) is a kind of detective, patiently sifting the soil for clues to old mysteries. But, while other archaeologists ponder mostly ancient history, Belcher is focused on riddles that still bewilder thousands of American families today.

As the deputy director of the Honolulu-based Central Identification Laboratory at JPAC – the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command – Belcher is responsible for helping the military find and identify the remains of thousands of American servicemen lost in wars around the world. This work has taken him from the jungles of Southeast Asia, to the seafloor around Palau, to crash sites high in the Indian Himalayas.

But to really understand what Belcher does – and why it matters – it may help to revisit an old case set in the bucolic English countryside.

For more than 55 years, the wreckage of the B-17 Flying Fortress Tondalayo lay buried here in a tidal marsh on the edge of the River Stour. According to Belcher, the old bomber was a part of the so-called Secret Squadron, a fleet of black-painted B-17s that flew nightly sorties over the cities of Germany and occupied Europe in the final stages of World War II. The Secret Squadron’s mission was to drop leaflets ahead of Allied bombing campaigns, warning civilians to flee. The devastation wrought by these displays of Allied air power was rapidly bringing the German Wehrmacht to its knees. Within weeks, the war in Europe would be over. But, on March 4, 1945, returning home from a routine mission over Amsterdam and Rotterdam, Tondalayo was shot down by an English anti-aircraft battery that mistook the black Flying Fortress for a German bomber.

A 55-year-old crash scene

This is really the beginning of the story for Belcher. Because, although most the crew of Tondalayo parachuted to safety, the pilot, Lt. Col. Earle Aber Jr., and the co-pilot, 2nd Lt. Maurice Harper, remained aboard, presumably to make sure the crippled plane didn’t crash into a populated area. They died when Tondalayo came down in flames, narrowly avoiding the tiny riverside village of Wrabness. The impact of the crash was so violent that, at the time, all rescuers were able to find of the airmen was part of Aber’s forearm, identified by his Eagle Scout ring. This was buried at Madingly, the U.S. military cemetery in Cambridge, U.K.

For the next five decades, Tondalayo and its lost crew were forgotten. But by the 1990s, local history buffs and divers, noticing the wreckage jutting from the mud at low tide, had begun researching war records to identify the plane. Finally, in June of 2000, Belcher – then with the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, one of JPAC’s predecessor organizations – led an expedition of military personnel, including explosive ordnance and mortuary affairs specialists, Royal Navy divers and Royal Marine salvage specialists, on a mission to try to recover the remains of Aber and Harper and bring them home.

Belcher has conducted dozens of these recovery operations, but he still describes the Tondalayo case as one of his most rewarding and challenging. “It was more of a complicated site,” he says. “The plane was buried in the mud at the edge of a river, so we had to have a platform – a kind of barge – stationed there. We were using divers as well. And it was pretty shallow at low tide, so we were using a mechanical excavator, like a back-hoe, mounted on the barge.”

As Belcher and his crew worked on the muddy tidal flats, they were watched over by family members of the fallen airmen who had come all the way from the United States, seeking closure. At night, the recovery team and relatives of the missing men dined together and talked. One of the family members solemnly showed them Aber’s Eagle Scout ring. “To me, as an Eagle Scout, that was an interesting connection,” Belcher says.

And, as the team’s lead archaeologist, Belcher choreographed the whole, frenetic operation. “I couldn’t stay long in one place,” he says. “A lot of the times, I would get in the water, directing where I wanted the excavator. Or I would be sitting up with the operator, indicating where I wanted to pull different material from.” But it was also backbreaking, meticulous work. Belcher’s crew carefully screened every load from the excavator for potential human remains or crash site artifacts to be cataloged and packed off to JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu.

A JPAC recovery operation, after all, is a forensic investigation. In fact, JPAC’s state-of-the-art Central Identification Laboratory is one of the largest certified forensic labs in the world. When the lab receives skeletal remains or artifacts from a crash site, those items are subjected to rigorous analysis. Scientists at the lab or other Defense laboratories use dental and medical records, as well as technological advances like DNA analysis and mass spectrometers, to help identify human remains. In addition, JPAC historians research military records, eyewitness testimony and other historical documents to lend context to the findings of the archaeologists.

Read the rest of this story on the website for Window Magazine.