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The bone collectors: The search for lost heroes of WWII

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The bone collectors: The search for lost heroes of WWII
The bodies of some of the thousands of allied airmen shot down in Germany during the Second World War have been recovered thanks to the extraordinary work of Uwe Benkel and his team.
Tony Paterson reports
Published: 16 January 2006
A fist-sized block of glass sits on top of a stack of files in Uwe Benkel's sitting-room. It looks like an expensive crystal paper weight that might have been bought at Harrods. Yet the block has a more poignant history. A few weeks before Christmas it was retrieved from a 15ft pit hidden deep in a forest in Germany's Rhineland Palatinate district near the French border.

The block once formed part of the bulletproof windscreen of an American fighter bomber flown by 21-year-old Ronald Potter, whose P47 "Thunderbolt" plane was shot down 61 years ago during a Second World War dogfight with a German Messerschmitt.

Yesterday, Uwe Benkel, a mild- mannered social security office manager in his forties, presented the chunk of windscreen and other bits of retrieved plane wreckage to Kerry Potter, the 62-year-old son of the pilot of the American plane. He travelled to Germany from Alaska for what was an emotional ceremony.

"Kerry Potter is deeply moved," Mr Benkel said. "He told me on the phone from Alaska that this will finally connect him with his father. He said he had given up hope of finding out much about him. Until now, nobody really knew how he died. He was simply listed as killed in action and his body was found in a mass grave."

The event will be another milestone in Uwe Benkel's remarkable part-time career. Since 1989, he and the 14 other voluntary and unpaid members of his Research Group for the Missing have recovered the remains of 80 British, American and German wartime aircraft shot down during the Second World War and recovered the bodies of 28 pilots listed as missing.

"It is more of a calling than a hobby," Mr Benkel said last week, "We just think its right to give these lads a decent burial and explain their fate to their relatives. We don't give a damn whose side they were on. Most of them were hardly out of their teens," he added.

The fate of US Air Force Lieutentant Ronald Potter is typical of the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 pilots shot down over Germany during the Second World War. Shortly after his plane crashed, his body was found by local German officials and simply dumped in a mass grave. After the Allied invasion of Germany, US officials found the body, identified it, and returned it to America for military burial. But Ronald Potter was just one of the thousands of US pilots killed in action.

However, Mr Benkel's team of crash-site excavators was able to discover the exact circumstances of his death. "We asked local people who remembered witnessing the dogfight. Then we actually found the pilot of the Messerschmitt who shot down Lt Potter's plane. He is still alive!" Mr Benkel said.

Finding the wreckage of the plane then became comparatively easy. A forester took them to what he believed was the crash site and the team started digging. Sections of a bullet-riddled tail section were pulled from the clay floor of the forest. It emerged that Lt Potter had baled out and that German witnesses who first arrived at the crash site found his body propped up against a tree. "A syringe was lying next to him and we think that he had injected himself with morphine from his first-aid kit to deaden the pain he must have been suffering from his injuries. The German pilot saw him bale out and hit the tail of the plane as it crashed," Mr Benkel said.

Rumours abound in villages near the crash site that Lt Potter may have been clubbed to death by zealous Nazi officials acting on orders from Air Marshall Hermann Goering, who decreed that no Allied pilot should be left alive on German soil. However, Mr Benkel insists that hundreds of other Allied airmen were spared such a fate by ordinary Germans who intervened on their behalf.

Uwe Benkel's calling was sparked by another, more recent tragedy. In the Eighties, he and his then American wife used to attend an annual air show held at the nearby Ramstein US Air Force base. But in 1988, he decided to give the event a miss because he had more pressing concerns at home. At that year's show at least 70 onlookers were killed and 400 others were badly injured when three Italian Air Force jets collided in mid-air and exploded in a fireball over the crowd.

"Friends rang me at home and I went immediately to the site. I was appalled and sickened by the sight of innocent people's shoes and bits of shredded clothing lying all over the place and the smell of burnt flesh. It made me think about the plight of ordinary pilots during the Second World War," he said.

On a trip to London later that year, he and his family visited the RAF museum at Hendon. They were surprised to see the remnants of crashed Lancaster and Wellington bombers among the exhibits. A museum guide explained that the wreckage had been discovered by German farmers and that sometimes the remains of the pilots had been found inside the aircraft.

Mr Benkel went back home and asked his family and friends if they had witnessed any planes crashing during the war. Many had. The first crash site that he investigated was that of an RAF Wellington that had come down in woods near his home. The pilot was buried in the local churchyard, but his aircraft lay buried somewhere in the area. Mr Benkel interviewed farmers who told him that they kept ploughing up bits of aluminium in a nearby field. He started digging and found the Wellington's tail markers. The story made the local papers and helped the RAF to update its records.

"It just snowballed after that. More and more people came forward with information about crashed Second World War planes," he said. To prove his point, Mr Benkel pulled out a map of Germany peppered with hundreds of red blobs littering the landscape, each one representing the site of a crashed Second World War plane. "I won't get to them all in my lifetime, but my two sons say they want to carry on with the job," Mr Benkel said.

The grimmest, yet most rewarding part of Uwe Benkel's self-appointed task is retrieving the remains of pilots still listed as missing more than six decades after the end of the Second World War and finally returning them to their relatives for burial. The process is exacting and often extremely hazardous. At first a suspected crash site is combed with a metal detector. If wreckage is thought to be underground, the site is then dug up with the help of a mechanical digger often loaned by a building contractor.

"Often the aircraft still have live bombs and machine gun rounds aboard, so we have to call in the munitions disposal experts to clear the site and that can take days. Even then there is a risk of coming into contact with explosive material," Mr Benkel said.

Then, often in clammy and cold earth pits excavated to depths of up to eight metres, Mr Benkel, who is normally joined by his 36-year-old wife Martina, comes face to face with history. "It is not easy to describe these moments. What you feel is a mixture of awe and terrible sadness. It is the past suddenly re-materialising in your hands," he said.

What Uwe Benkel and his wife discover is not for the squeamish. The uninitiated might assume that 60 years on, a handful of crumbling bones would be all that was left of a lost pilot. Yet the reality is different. The planes that crashed headlong into the ground are buried under tons of earth . As a result the remains of the pilot and the wreckage of his aircraft are hermetically sealed from the corrosive effects of air and often bathed in plane fuel which acts as an additional preservative.

"The pilots' remains are usually found somewhere on top of the aircraft's engine. The skin is often intact, so is their hair and their uniforms. We had one case where we found a pilot's boot with the leg still inside it. It is a harrowing experience," explained Martina Benkel.

Uwe Benkel has piles of plane wreckage and pilots' belongings stacked in a corner of his basement. The collection includes immaculately preserved bits of aircraft machinery that look as if they could still be used. One item is an entire silk parachute belonging to Georg Fröhlich, a young Messerschmitt pilot whose aircraft crashed in Thuringia in eastern Germany during the war. Mr Benkel lifted a blackened metal bullet-proof shield behind the pilot's cockpit. "We found him under that," he explained.

A collection of photographs found at the Messerschmitt crash site includes pictures of Mr Fröhlich's pencils, name tags, his belt buckle, cigarettes and a bloodstained wallet stuffed with Nazi German Reichsmark notes. "When we found the wallet, it was oozing blood when we pulled it from the earth. It was as if he had crashed the same afternoon," Mr Benkel said.

Georg Fröhlich's case was one of the most moving Uwe Benkel and his team have dealt with. His widow, daughter and brother were present when his remains were pulled from the earth. His daughter was only a year old when her father died. She had only known him from grainy black-and-white wartime photographs showing a smiling Luftwaffe pilot in uniform. "We were able to present her with his name tags. She said it was the only thing of her father's she ever had. We were all in tears," Mr Benkel recalled.

The story is one of dozens Uwe Benkel can tell. There was the case of the British Stirling bomber pilot Kenneth Albiston, whose plane was shot down over Germany in September 1943. He had been listed as missing. However, in 1994, Mr Benkel and his team traced the remains of the aircraft and identified Kenneth Albiston from a cigarette lighter engraved with his name which was found among the aircraft's debris. His relatives were flown in from Britain and were able to attend the funeral at which the pilot's remains were buried.

Mr Benkel's work is not just about reuniting families with the remains of their lost husbands, fathers, uncles and cousins. His collection of plane wreckage and the photographs of his crash site digs are used for exhibitions about the Second World War in schools and communities throughout Germany. "For the kids it gives our past a tangible meaning that they simply can't get from school history books," he says. " Some of the youngsters are so taken by the subject that they come along and help during excavations."

The walls of Uwe Benkel's two- storey house in the village of Heltersberg near Kaiserslautern are covered with accolades for his work. He has received letters of support from Bill Clinton and is even an honorary member of the British Bomber Command Association. Second World War historians refer to him as "The Big B". Fifteen years spending most weekends crawling around in the mud of crashed plane sites would be enough for most people to think of calling it a day. But for the "Big B" it is a race against time. He wants to find the estimated 1,200 pilots and crew still missing under Germany's soil.

"In 10 years or so, most of the people who witnessed the crashes will be dead and so will many of the pilots' close relatives. For my work to have any chance of success or meaning, I have to keep going for as long as I can," Mr Benkel says.

Relatives of Second World War pilots still registered as missing in Germany can contact Martina and Uwe Benkel in English at Am Zimmerkopf 9, 67716 Heltersberg, Germany. Email: mu.benkel@t-online.de