Excavation work in village seeks to recover missing airman
PUBLISHED: 10:28 04 September 2019 | UPDATED: 11:04 04 September 2019
Two days before D-Day, on June 4, 1944, an American bomber plane carrying six men crashed into farmland just after taking off from Stansted Airport, then known as Royal Air Force Stansted Mountfitchet.
The Martin B-26 Maurauder, part of a fleet heading to Nazi-occupied France on a targeting mission, was carrying two bombs each weighing 2,000lb and, according to witnesses, upon crashing, burned for about 10 minutes before exploding.
Five of the airmen managed to escape the plane but one of their number was caught in the explosion and died at the scene. His remains were later recovered. Now, the United States Department of Defence, in the first mission of its kind in the UK, has descended upon the crash site, armed with metal detectors and buckets, searching for the remains of the sixth crew member, who is currently unaccounted for and unidentified.
Two weeks ago, travelling down a dirt track which leads to dusty farmland, on the outskirts of a village near Stansted Airport, which the defence department has asjed us not to name, I met the 23-strong team from the Defence POW/MIA Accounting Agency excavating the crash site.
Scientific recovery expert Brian Seymour, who is responsible for leading the digging operations and identifying material evidence, showed me bullets and bullet cases as well as small pieces of air craft shrapnel, mixed in with farming equipment, which has been discovered so far. Aircraft material can often be distinguished from agricultural equipment because it is lighter, he explained.
Before the recovery team flew over, a team of investigators tracked down local witnesses and conducted interviews, using the information gathered to locate the crash site.
Standing over a shallow ditch, Brian said: "Part of what we are looking for is features in the ground that are going to give us some clues."
The team have learnt from witness statements that the plane crashed to the south of the newly-dug ditches and they have used metal detectors to find areas with the highest metal concentration.
The dug-up soil is then decanted into troughs and sifted through by volunteers, who deposit anything which looks man-made into buckets, for closer inspection. The volunteers are from American military units, with the youngest a 19-year-old in the infantry. One volunteer, dressed in a blue waterproof coat, has his headphones plugged in.
"It can get quite monotonous... we have to listen to podcasts," says Apryl Hole, a forensic photographer who joins in with the sifting when she can.
This is one the American's first recovery mission in the UK and team sergeant, Sgt 1st Class Peter Holderness says he feels "honoured to be part of it." Sgt Holderness, who has travelled to Laos and Vietnam to search for missing servicemen from the Vietnam War, said: "I have seen perhaps seven or eight sites and to be quite honest, each one is extremely unique. The first one I worked was on the side of a mountain. It's very exciting. We hope to be able to come back if needed to this site or some of the others around."
Anything the team finds will be handed into the local authority, before being transferred to the American government's labs in Hawaii.
The team leader is Captain Daniel Collier, who has served as a Blackhawk pilot, with tours in Afghanistan, central America and Iraq.
Explaining his mission, Capt Collier says: "We do it because its our nation's promise. We don't want to leave any of our service men on foreign land. It is our missions to bring our fallen men home to their families."
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