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Seabees Assist In World War II Archaeological Dig
by U.S. Navy Janine Scianna, Naval Air Station Sigonella
February 21, 2020

The island of Sicily is beautiful and serene, with the majestic Mount Etna towering on the horizon, surrounded by farmland as far as the eye can see. It can be hard to imagine that 76 years ago, this bucolic landscape was the frontier of war between the Allied and Axis Forces.

The invasion of Sicily, also known as Operation Husky, was a critical step in the Allied Forces’ gaining a foothold in occupied Europe. The operation was fought on two fronts—an amphibious assault along the coast and paratroopers deployed behind enemy lines. After 38 days and over 14,000 lives lost from both sides, the operation was successful and the island was secured.

During November 2019, Sigonella Public Works Sailors were physically reminded of the sacrifices made on Sicily during World War II. A team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago, in partnership with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, conducted archaeological excavations as part of a long-term project to locate, unearth, and send home a U.S. service member who went missing in action during Operation Husky. The Seabees helped supply extra labor to dig and sift through soil at the archaeological site and separate any artifacts that could be related to the missing service member.

November 16, 2019 - Naval Air Station Sigonella Sailor volunteers and archaeological students screen soil for artifacts during a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency archaeological excavation in Sicily. Sailors from Naval Air Station Sigonella’s Public Works department volunteered to assist the efforts of the University of Illinois at Chicago research team. NAS Sigonella’s strategic location enables U.S, allied, and partner nation forces to deploy and respond as required to ensure security and stability in Europe, Africa and Central Command. (U.S. Navy photo by Janine Scianna, Naval Air Station Sigonella)
November 16, 2019 - Naval Air Station Sigonella Sailor volunteers and archaeological students screen soil for artifacts during a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency archaeological excavation in Sicily. Sailors from Naval Air Station Sigonella’s Public Works department volunteered to assist the efforts of the University of Illinois at Chicago research team. NAS Sigonella’s strategic location enables U.S, allied, and partner nation forces to deploy and respond as required to ensure security and stability in Europe, Africa and Central Command. (U.S. Navy photo by Janine Scianna, Naval Air Station Sigonella)

Like most scientific research, the work of the DPAA is hugely important but also extremely deliberate. To bring home the remains of a single service member, a number of phases need to be executed. First, an investigation team researches archives in the host nation, investigates any leads in Last Known Alive cases, and obtains the oral history from host-nation officials and locals that may have broad information about a particular region or battle. If there are actionable leads, a survey team is then sent in to do exploratory archaeological work. And finally, if those initial excavations corroborate the research, a recovery team is sent in to uncover the missing service member.

Dr. Danielle Riebe, team leader from UIC, remarked on how important it is to dedicate so much time and effort to recovering even a single missing service member.

“It is important that we fulfill the promises that we made to these individuals when they signed up, and that we fulfill the promises we made to their family members who are still waiting to have that closure,” said Riebe. “It doesn’t matter if we’re looking for one person or 20.”

For this particular project, the archaeological work will continue well after this phase of the dig ends. Until DPAA is confident that they’ve achieved fullest possible recovery of the missing service member, they will continue to come back to excavate.

For now, they will continue to follow leads as they develop. In an example of a missing pilot, that means looking for remnants of the cockpit or ammunition, which indicates that they may be getting close to the remains of the service member.

All recovered material will be sent to DPAA’s laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska for analysis. There, forensic anthropologists analyze human remains and material evidence such as military uniforms, personal effects, and identification tags. Only when scientific techniques determine that the remains from an excavation site match the identity of the missing service member can they fully account for an MIA.

James Meierhoff, UIC PhD candidate and the lead archaeologist for the project, was grateful to have the extra helping hands of the Seabee volunteers.

“All the help is good,” said Meierhoff. “And it is also good for our undergraduate students to interact with a wide variety of people, including the military. It’s great to have military personnel be part of this process.”

“And it’s good for the Seabees as well, to be able to interact with us and see what we’re able to do altogether,” added Riebe.

Builder Third Class Caleb Culberson, one of the Seabee volunteers and an avid World War II history buff, remarked on how sobering it was to participate in the excavation.

“You can listen to the stories all day, you can watch movies, read all these books, but you never actually know until you see it,” said Culberson. “This is what happened on this day to this person 76 years ago. It really sticks with you.”

While the work to send this particular service member home continues, one thing remains clear. The huge amounts of time and resources required to bring just one MIA home pales in comparison to the unending sacrifice that they paid to our country.

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