Thursday, March 31, 2016

Battlefield Burials and Missing-in-Action

Many people associate the term MIA or Missing-in-Action with the Vietnam War, but have you ever associated the term with those who served in the first World War?  I came across a great project that is underway called Doughboy MIA, run by Robert and Trinie Laplander.  Robert is best known for his book about the famous Lost Battalion of the 77th Division.  Their project has a ton of great information and it is well worth taking a look: Doughboy MIA

My interest in this website peaked when I found five members of the 313th Machine Gun Battalion on the list of those still considered Missing in Action.  The website offered a resource for ordering what is called a “Burial Case File” from the National Archives.  I contacted a researcher, paid the copy fees, and had 4 of the 5 case files sent to me in about a week.  Reading the reports were humbling and at the same time quite sad. There are copies of letters from some of the mothers of the fallen in these files asking the War Department for more information about the remains of their sons.  It is evident by the text that they are aware that the remains had not yet been located and one mother even questioned if she should be allowed to attend the Gold Star Mother’s Pilgrimage because she would not have a burial site to visit.  The Pilgrimage was paid for by the US Government and the trip was made available to the wives and mothers of the fallen.

I decided to look at some of the case investigations.  In doing so, I wondered if it was possible to identify any new information that could be cross referenced using today's technology and the use of archival information to take a second look at a case.  One particular case that I am drawn to is that of efforts to find the remains of Curtis A. Dye and John E. Conway.  There are inconsistencies in the information given and sometimes incorrect reporting found in the case file.   It also appears that there was a lack of follow up after new information was given to investigators.  It's doubtful that officials would mark the file "closed or unsolved" but we do know that the records show that their remains have not been identified.  This is in no way a criticism of the efforts of any one involved in past investigations.

Curtis A. Dye and John E. Conway were killed on October 6, 1918. Their bodies were buried in a temporary grave and marked with a wooden cross. Chaplain Charles C. Merrill documented their temporary “Grave Location” on the battlefield on October 11, 1918. He wrote down the map coordinates that placed the location of the burial in the woods of the Bois de Beuge, near Nantillois, France.

On July 30, 1921, Mrs. Fannie Conway, the mother of John Conway, wrote to the War Department pleading for help in locating the remains of her son.  It took nearly 7 1/2 years after Conway's death for the Army to do another physical search of the area in an attempt to locate his remains. Unfortunately,  Mrs. Conway passed away in 1924, before another search was ever completed.  

Some documents in the case file record these men belonging to the 315th Machine Gun Battalion. This was incorrect. They were in the 313th. At first I thought this may have been a simple typo, but on a different document the Army recorded the men as being part of the 79th Division. Again, this was incorrect. They belonged to the 80th Division.  This may not be a significant inconsistency, but it is worth pointing out to anyone reading the actual case file reports.

In July 1926, the Quartermaster General’s Office wrote to the Chaplain who completed the "Grave Location Blank" card asking for his assistance in recalling the location of the remains of Dye and Conway.  The Chaplain wrote back to the investigators in August 1926 stating that the soldiers were buried in a "shell hole dug out for burial," and they were "not in the same grave."  He wrote that they were "not buried in the woods, but in an open field."  The coordinates that he initially provided on the location card were inconsistent with his description of the surrounding area.

In December 1927, when the case was being reviewed, the Quartermaster General’s office made a physical search of that location. They did not find the remains of Dye or Conway and so they wrote back to the Chaplain in January 1928 asking him to mark on a sketch where he remembered the men to be buried. The Chaplain again answered back in February 1928 and included a notation on the hand drawn sketch of the possible location.  He placed a dot on the sketch and marked the names Conway and Dye.  He also made a correction in his letter as to the proper grid coordinates. See red arrow below.

When the file came up for review again, a report was written by Colonel Richard T. Ellis in September 1929 recommending that the Chaplain’s possible location be transferred onto a true map of the area and that it be sent to former members of B company in order to plan another physical search for the remains.  It was also recommended to once again send the map back to the Chaplain “to aid him possibly in recalling more accurately the precise interment location.”  This map was sent:

The case file does not show any further correspondence received by the Chaplain and only a few hand written notes giving information received from the members of the Company who tried to recall the burial site.  There does not appear to be any further report in the case file to indicate that another physical search of the location was ever completed after the Chaplain provided his notation on the sketch as to where a new search should be completed.  There are also inconsistencies in where the men recalled the location of the site in relation to the nearby roads. Because of these inconsistent reports, it is possible that the investigators may have decided not to pursue another physical search of this remote farm area without having better information.  We don't know if another search was ever completed as the file does not provide any later investigator reports.

Using Google and Bing maps and comparing them to the hand drawn sketch, there appears to be an anomaly in the current open farm field.  What reason would a farmer have in not disturbing the land in the middle of an otherwise open crop field?  My photos point to a grow of trees/shrubs that appear to be out of place to the rest of the field, and the vegetation also appears to be close to the location noted by the Chaplain.

I contacted local historian Maarten Otte who runs a B&B and museum located in the town.  He knows nearly every square foot of terrain in and around Nantillois and reported back to me that the anomaly in the above photo is actually a natural spring in the field.  He told me that the last time the remains of an American soldier was found in this area happened in the 1950s.

Maarten is intrigued by the map coordinates and is willing to assist further when additional information is obtained.  I have also communicated with Robert Laplander of the Doughboy MIA project and he too will be looking into this case and give his opinion on these findings.

The burial card for Curtis Dye has two different coordinates. The first notation given reads "By road 500 yards below (North) 80:3 - 10:3 Montfaucon 1/50,000." These were changed in the Chaplain's letter and corrected on the sketch above to read 80.7 - 10.5

A later notation on Dye's burial card gives the coordinates placed on the sketch above to read: "CMME Nantillois (Meuse) ?? 179 SHT 35 NE COORD { E310.3 N280.3  "

A question that I would like to know: If the remains were taken from the battlefield and buried in an American cemetery under the inscription "Here rests in honored glory, an American soldier, known only to God" did government officials record where (using coordinates) that the remains were initially recovered from before they were moved?  Do records like this exist with the American Battle Monuments Commission?

I will update the blog after additional information is received.
"You Are Not Forgotten."
Semper Fi, 
Lieutenant Gladstone H. Yeuell, Chaplain, 313th Field Artillery

Full Map in the file showing Grid E310 N280 
Photo appears in "History of the 313th Field Artillery" 1920

Roadside crucifix located North of the field - unable to rear the inscription on this marker.