11 November 2008

The Diggers of Belgium

Some people refer to this band of Belgians as “The Diggers” for its dogged determination to recover the remains of U.S. infantrymen who remain missing from the Battle of the Bulge. Pictured from left to right are: Jean-Luc Menestrey, Marc Marique, Jean-Philippe Speder and Jean-Louis Seel. Photo: Kevin Dougherty / S&S

It's been a long time since I've read such an inspirational story - a story about decades of quiet, selfless dedication. A story about those who honor the price of freedom.

It began when two men were teenagers going on souvenir hunts through the Belgian forests, at that time still scattered with WWII litter. Then, one day, they found the skeletal remains of a German Soldier. And four years later, in 1988, the remains of an American Soldier.

"When we found our first American, it was a turning point."

Since then, they've never stopped looking through the quiet woods, although years often go by between finds.

"Sometimes I think I see shadows," Speder said. "In a sense, they are still here."

When you ask them why they do it, why they've devoted countless hours of their time over decades to locating Americans they never knew, Americans who died well before they were born, they say they consider it an honor.

"They liberated my parents and grandparents," Speder said. The soldiers "are kind of my family."

Annually, the U.S. spends more than $100 million a year on POW/MIA matters, much of it in Southeast Asia, based on Defense Department figures. Despite the sum, JPAC won’t send recovery teams to Europe — or, for that matter, anywhere in the world — without solid leads.

When a site is confirmed, the mortuary affairs office in Landstuhl is contacted and it coordinates with JPAC to ultimately bring the remains to Hawaii for further examination and tests.

[Finding solid leads] is where Speder and his team enter the equation.

The telegrams that reached the front stoops of many homes during World War II rarely conveyed good news to anxious families. In this January 1945 telegram, the family of Pfc. Dominick Posillipo learned that the previous month he had been reported missing in action in Belgium. Photo and story: Kevin Dougherty / S&S

One of the cases involves Pfc. Dominick Posillipo.

When his unit retreated during the early days of the German counteroffensive, Posillipo’s body was left behind and never recovered, his nephew, John Lozito, said. A month later, the Posillipo family received a telegram from the War Department stating he was missing in action.

A subsequent telegram said he died in Denmark, though unit buddies say he died near Steinbruck, Belgium, on the northern flank, where the 99th was situated.

Lozito continues to research the incident. While JPAC officials have visited the general area, Lozito is also in contact with The Diggers.

"They are my family’s last hope," Lozito said of the Belgian search team.

"They are the only hope for my uncle to come home."

Full story with more photos here.


DottieP said...

My father, William C C Cavanagh, a renowned World War II historian used to work alongside the Belgian diggers when he lived in Belgium. He also conducted many tours for World War II veterans when he worked as a historian. He was unfortunately diagnosed with a rare form of dementia nearly 2 years ago but I would like to say on his behalf that he has dedicated most of his life to praising the efforts of American soldiers worldwide and has enormous amounts of admiration for them all. Thanks to my father, we also respect the young men who gave their lives to ensure the freedom of Europe as a whole. God Bless them all

Jan Fontenot said...

Jean Philippe found my father-in-law's dog tag in a box with others. It was a special event for our family. He had never spoken of the war until he received his dog tag back. He went to the 99th reunions after that.
Great story for our children and grandchildren to know.
Thanks to Jean Philippe Speder and the diggers!
Jan Fontenot