How Europeans Help Search For Missing World War II Soldiers

Image source: VGBO

Chris Seiwert, a 59-year-old German criminal attorney, was angry and frustrated so he did what most modern tech-savvy people do and he vented his frustrations in the comments section of the Stars and Stripes website.  He had previously contacted the US Army regarding soldiers that were MIA (Missing in Action) in Germany since World War II but had received no response.

He wrote that a group that he belonged to had found ID bracelets of two American soldiers, near the German village of Sinz.  One was inscribed with the name of Frank Rasmussen; a name Seiwert recognised from a book he had recently read, about the 94th Infantry Division.   Fortunately, his comments were seen, and recognised for what they were, by Josh Fennell, a Washington-based historian employed by the Europe-Mediterranean branch of the DPAA (U.S. Defence POW/MIA Accounting Agency), who contacted Seiwert.

The DPAA is a recently formed agency, which grew out of the amalgamation of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command and the Defence POW/Missing Personnel Office.  It has been charged with recovering and identifying the remains of America’s war dead amounting to approximately 25 000 service people that are still MIA since World War II across Europe and the Mediterranean.

Fennell corresponded with Seiwert and found him to be an invaluable resource as Seiwert grew up in the Saar Valley in south-west Germany and as the Americans had taken severe losses in this area towards the end of the war, Fennel was very interested in all the information that Seiwert could provide.

Seiwert related stories, told by his mother, of living through the war and his father had fought against Russia while still in his teens.  Living where he did, he grew up with war relics lying all around and Seiwert remembers playing in the woods around his home with his childhood friend, Peter Jung, where they collected all manner of WW II artefacts.

Needless to say, this adventuresome duo was forbidden from scouring the woods for artefacts, both by his parents and the authorities, as it was extremely dangerous. However, the boys found many items ranging from belt buckles, steel helmets, they even found a gun but the most poignant find was a skeleton.  It was the remains of a German soldier, Alfred Obal, who had lived in Breslau.  They found his wallet containing letters, stamps and some money and the bones of his left hand were still adorned with his wedding ring.

Life soon caught up with Seiwert and he found no time to pursue his hobby as he went off to study and then married and raised a family.  In the early 1990’s with the winding down of the Cold War and the falling of the Berlin Wall, Seiwert, and his childhood friend, Jung, launched a non-profit organisation called The Association for the Recovery of the Fallen in Eastern Europe. It is now known by its German initials VBGO, with mission of searching for and identifying the remains of the approximately one million German soldiers missing all over Europe and Russia.

Germany has no formal governmental agency tasked with finding and identifying German war dead.  The closest they come is the German War Graves Commission; that exists on a mix of federal and private funding to maintain German war graves and though they do search for mass graves, they have neither the manpower nor the resources to search for individual soldiers.

The fledgeling VBGO organisation started out with eighteen members and they have grown and had significant success.  In the past twenty years, they have recovered more than 7 500 sets of remains but fewer than a quarter have been positively identified mainly due to lack of identifying marks.  Most American and German soldiers wore dog tags to identify them but Russian soldiers carried no formal forms of identification.

Seiwert is determined to ensure that fallen soldiers, irrespective of their nationality, are returned to their families and given a proper burial. The first American they located was Lawrence Burkett, who was killed on the 11th December 1944 near Dillingen.  The VBGO found his dog tags and working with the Americans his remains were returned to his children for burial.

When Fennell read the comments left by Seiwert on the Stars and Stripes web page and they had made contact. Seiwert wanted to know if the Americans had any information on soldiers MIA in the Bannholz Woods area as VBGO had found the identity bracelets of two Americans, one belonging to Frank Rasmussen, who died on his first day in action.

Fennell sent his files on two Americans listed as missing in the area of the Bannholz Woods, Al Zelnis and Edward Ikebe.  Both these soldiers fought with the 376th Infantry Regiment, a part of the 94th Infantry Division and were last seen on the 10th February 1945 in the Bannholz Woods.  This was one of the most brutal battles in the last days of the war.  The Germans were entrenched in the woods, and F Company of the 376th Infantry was ordered to attack and take a section of the woods.

The company commander, Captain George Whitman wrote, “The Germans, were hunkered down with 11th Panzer Division Tiger tanks, mortars and machine gun nests on the far end and had so far rebuffed two attempts by the Americans to seize the area. The Germans counterattacked and the next few hours were a living hell.  Their tanks, with impunity, were roaming the edge of the woods, blasting away and raking our defensive position with murderous machine gun fire.”

Captain Whitman, against the orders of his commander, ordered a retreat and of the 127 men that entered the battle, only 27 were alive to pull back.  Zelnis was reported killed when a tree branch fell on his head while he was lying in his foxhole.  The Germans would fire at the trees and the exploding shells would send debris and shrapnel flying in all directions.

The limb that fell on Zelnis was simply too big to be moved by manpower alone so he was left in place and is most probably still interred in his foxhole.  Ikebe has just disappeared, he went into battle with his battalion mates but never returned and no one has any idea what happened to him.

The DPAA is seeking partnerships with many organisations across Europe to assist with locating and preserving US soldiers remains.  A professional relationship is attained with the experience, skills and language ability of the VBGO and as part of that relationship some 30 members of the VBGO undertook an initial search of the Bannholz Woods for the remains of the two missing servicemen.

They used metal detectors and relied on local knowledge to search for any artefacts.  Digging at the location of every metal detector ping they found lots of bullets and some hand grenades.  They also found a foxhole, and in it were two German helmets, two razors, a canteen, a cup and a small shovel.  One of the group, Arnd Maes, found a WW II Bavarian medal buried under a foot of dirt and though it was a rare and valuable find; he said he would rather have found a soldier.  As no bones were found, the contents were returned to the foxhole and it was covered again.

Both the DPAA and the VBGO try to keep their investigations and the sites of their digs quiet so as not to raise the expectations of families of missing soldiers.  Word of this search had spread locally and while a group of the searchers were taking a break an elderly, local farmer, Adolf Koster, approached them holding several old photographs taken in the woods soon after the war ended.

One picture showed the woods behind a German tank and almost none of the trees are still standing while the second showed rows of graves.  Seiwert spoke with Koster, who said that the Germans took about 160 bodies out of the woods after the battle and, Koster was certain that there were more bodies still inside the woods.

The area had been sewn with land mines and the villagers would not enter the woods for fear of being blown up. In fact, Koster’s younger brother and two of his friends were killed in 1945 by an anti-tank mine that had been laid near the woods.  Authorities claim that all the mines have been cleared but the members of the VBGO recognise and mitigate as far as they can the risks associated with unexploded ordinance.

The searchers from the VBGO found no evidence of the missing Americans until the very end of their search.  Arnd Maes found, a US Army canteen with initials that appear to be AJZ scratched on the side, parts of an M1 rifle, a fragment of a steel helmet complete with a shrapnel hole and brass pieces for a suspender.  Zelnis’s full name was Albert J Zelnis, so could this have belonged to the missing soldier?   Unfortunately, the team had run out of time, but the artefacts were turned over to the DPAA, and another search will be scheduled for early in 2016.

Looking at the artefacts found, it is hard to credit that such a rustic scene, as seen in the woods during the search, could have in the past been a screaming hell of bullets, shrapnel and blood.  The magnificent job done by the volunteers of the VBGO is to be commended for the peace that it brings to so many families.

If US financial aid can be brought to bear then hopefully, they will continue to bring relief to those whose fathers, husbands and sons did not return from the bloody battlefields of Europe and Asia.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE