Don’t hold it against me [laughter], but yeah, I work for the Department of Defense, where my job is to bring out your dead. Somebody put it that way. I investigate the cases of missing persons and unidentified remains from World War II, in France and Belgium. The official designation of the office is DPMAA, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
We’re still fighting the war in Vietnam, you know what I mean? There’s only 1400 guys unaccounted for in Vietnam, and I got 73,000 on my list from the “good war.” But the only reason we get funding is because that black flag still flies, I swear. [laughter]
My job is to track what’s left of them down, and then I visit the families. Yeah, I know, it sounds creepy, but to me, it’s satisfying. I like to think I’m putting ghosts to rest.
No, no, it’s not “closure,” I don’t even know what that means, the families I talk to, this is once I got the remains verified, they’re mostly mystified. By now they’re already geezers, anyway—they treat me like a visitor from the past, which I am. Another ghost. That’s all right, I hope they see right through me. The uniformed guys deliver the folded flag.
I wasn’t this specialized until two years ago, before then I’d go to Burma, say, by way of the lab in Honolulu, looking for the remains of soldiers, Marines, sailors, and pilots, airmen they call them. With the right forensic evidence, I’d dig them up, do the DNA test, close the case.
Now it’s just France and Belgium, which is not so bad because you can’t run out of bodies. World War I, World War II, everybody died in that place. You’re always walking on dead people there.
The forensic labs are in Hawaii and in Omaha, Nebraska, the Offutt Air Force Base, in a building within a building, acres of test tubes. CSI kind of thing, you know? “Close reading,” they call it, but they’re looking at tissue, or bones, not words. Still, I like to think I’m making sentences out of these scraps—they give me a chance to make my case, see it through.
Yeah, so I do a lot of research before I make the case to my bosses, when I ask for travel clearance and liaison overseas. Think about it, how do you get a backhoe at this place, at this time? In France? [laughter] It’s like writing a memo in any office, I guess, but here I’m pleading a dead man’s case, and he’s dead for 70 years. I have to be able to say, OK, the orders say he was flying a mission over this terrain, this village, this place, on his way to wherever, and then he disappeared between here and there. Or he was a foot soldier, he must have died somewhere between here and there because his company made it to there, you see what I mean?
Well, that’s the interesting thing. How did these guys disappear? We have their names, and we know they’re gone. That’s about it. We have to tell their stories, make them convincing, before we can go over and dig ‘em up. It’s like writing a biography of a great man, except he’s not. All you got is the enlistment info, date of birth, place of birth, immediate family—and his assignment, what battalion, what company, what platoon.
You begin by tracking the movement of his unit. Yeah, we got the records for that, you can’t believe the detail we got. It’s all in cardboard boxes. Nothing digitized yet. Maybe some day. But you can follow him day by day once you have the file. It’s like you’re alongside him, and you want to say, “Don’t go there, friend.” You’re not going to die, but he is, and you know it before he does. But here we are 70 years later, not exactly before he dies, poor bastard. You see what I mean? [laughter] The times get mixed up.
Yes, of course, there are cases that stick with me. Sometimes I feel like the guy who runs a funeral home, or the poor slob who writes the obituaries. I’m always in the company of the dead, on paper or in person. But then I was trained as a historian, that’s how I got this job, and what does a historian do? He brings out the dead. He brings them to life.
OK, one case does stick with me. A young man from Waterloo, Iowa, a great basketball player I gather, enlisted in 1942, Army. Made the crossing at Normandy, Omaha Beach. Most of his company died on the sand. He joined another outfit, Company C, they’d also been “decimated,” I hate that word because it sounds like termites are slowly eating you away. Death came quickly where Jacob went. Jacob
Williams was his given name. People died wherever he went.
I followed him through Company C, 3rd Army—that was Patton’s gig—6th Armored Division, 2nd Battalion. He disappears somewhere between Caen and Reims, and so does all of Company C. There were local skirmishes, sure, but it’s clear sailing for the 3rd Army until December, 1944, Battle of the Bulge and all that. Why did they leave the 3rd Army, take that detour?
These guys were off the reservation. They went south, I mean literally, toward the Mediterranean—all of Company C, and I’m pretty sure Jacob talked them into it. Why do I think that? Well, I studied him, tried to get to know him, you know what I mean? In his letters home, he talked about becoming a preacher, and it was pretty much fire and brimstone, marching into Hell, meeting the Devil face to face, that kind of thing. Sin was all around, Sodom and Gomorrah, on and on. He felt great evil wherever he went.
He was a dangerous man. I’ve read all those letters home, and letters from his brothers, his brothers in arms, too. Most of the letters mention him, they say, we’re headed somewhere because Jacob says we have to. That’s amazing, that he would have that kind of power over his fellow grunts. Where was the lieutenant, the sergeants? I kept asking myself that question. Jacob was preaching something, and everybody fell for it, the officers and the NCOs too.
What was the mission? Good question. I have asked it myself. Did Jacob lead Company C into Hell?
You might say that. Hell, I’ve said it. 60 miles southwest of Reims, that’s a three-day march off the course of the 3rd Army, Company C engaged the enemy, in a little village between Avallon and Dijon. We never even figured out a name for the place. It disappeared, and I think it did because, well, because Company C engaged somebody there.
Was it the enemy? Was it the Devil himself? Jacob Williams knew, I’m not sure anybody else did. The battle started on Friday, July 28, and it was over on Sunday, July 30, 1944.
The magnetic resonance imaging we have of these bodies—we can do it from the air—makes this tiny village look a huge battlefield, or maybe a cemetery. Bodies are everywhere, Germans soldiers, French peasants, Jacob and his men—in the streets, in the fields. We’re talking over 300 dead people in the middle of nowhere. We found one of ours buried in the mayor’s wine cellar, for God’s sake. Who was fighting who? And for what?
No doubt that Jacob was out in front of this. But why? Where were they headed? Was this village their destination? That’s the thing, you get to know these people, but you never know why they died when they did, what brought them to this place.
That soldier in the wine cellar. One of his buddies wrote a letter home about Company C’s wino. The guy was always diving into wine cellars, “inspecting the local wares,” he called it. He’d break off the neck and find a glass, drink all night if he could. Totally unreliable by day, but everybody loved him—he was their mascot, I guess. Thing is, the bullet that killed him came from an American carbine, an M-1. Not an officer’s pistol, not a German rifle. Who killed that guy?
And here’s the other thing, this is what worries me, keeps me up at night sometimes. Friendly fire killed almost all of the Americans who died in that place. Jacob killed himself, for God’s sake, I’m sure of that. The back of his head was blown off. Who else? And why?
In Waterloo, I asked Jacob’s mother what she would like to do with the remains.
“Of what?” she said.
Sure, I can tell you about other cases. How about my first case? It was a fighter pilot who went down in eastern France. He was flying a P-47, with that huge Pratt-Whitney engine out in front, .50 caliber machine gun underneath, not like the P-38 Lightning, two engines on the wings. Soon as you disable the P-47, as soon as it loses power, it dives, the weight of that engine makes it vertical, and when it hits ground it goes twelve feet deep. At least.
The effect of that collision is ugly. [laughter] Your head flies off, maybe your arms, too. The locals retrieved the torso, buried it at the edge of the field he’d crashed, and used the propeller as a kind of cross.
By the time I got there, this is five years ago, it was just a field, no propeller. But we found .50 caliber bullet casings, bits of plexiglass. We actually found the pilot’s head in the field, so we took his skull, hoping to check the dentures, verify that he was this guy from Brooklyn we’d been tracking.
We identified him by those teeth. They were really bad, lots of fillings. It turns out he had been flying Spitfires for the RAF before we got into the war. Sure, I can tell you that. His name was Eugene Rabinowitz.
Like my grandfather, this young man became a squadron leader during World War II, flying missions from England over Germany, piloting B-26s. He’s the guy who lines up the target and delivers the package. He watches what happens, because he needs to verify it, write it up. What was Eugene doing in that P-47? Why had he decided to go solo? Who let him do it? You can see that my questions can’t be answered.
When he was really old, my grandfather talked about all the damage he’d done by dropping bombs. I wouldn’t say he had regrets, it was more like he was trying to balance the books, you know what I mean? Sort of like what I do.
One day, maybe a month before he died, he gave me the flight log he kept, a record of all the missions he flew. I looked through it, just mystified, but I’m pretty sure that was the start of my career as an archive rat. I kept trying to make sense of it. I still am. I still have it.
The entries for February 14-15, 1945, always intrigued me, even when I was a kid, because instead of his usual short report—here’s the mission, flight path, time and delivery, return to base—you see two whole paragraphs. But you can’t read them, they’re scribbled and stained. Except for the word “Dresden.” On those runs, he was aiming his bombs at the railroad yards outside of Dresden. He didn’t create the firestorm, I decided. I cross-checked his flight log against the official version, and he was there, but it was the RAF that incinerated the city.
I guess I want to forgive him. And he doesn’t even need it. Not from me.