Home at last from a distant field

Discovery of bones recalls story of soldier killed in World War II

May 28, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

About two weeks from now, a burial with full military honors is planned at Arlington National Cemetery for Russell W. Abendschoen, who fought in World War II.

The ceremony will be unlike many held at the cemetery. No widow will grieve. No children or grandchildren will cry when the bugler plays taps. His closest living relative, a cousin, plans to attend, but he has only the faintest memories of Abendschoen, whom he last saw more than seven decades ago.

On Sept. 21, 1944, Abendschoen, a 23-year-old from York, Pa., and four other American soldiers were killed when their plane crashed near a farmhouse close to Arnhem, Holland. Some of their remains were later recovered and buried in a group grave at a U.S. military cemetery.

But, for half a century, some of their bones were hidden in the Dutch soil.

The story of how Abend schoen's remains were uncovered and identified is as complex as any mystery novel. The characters include a boy with a metal detector, an elderly Dutch priest, historians, scientists and an account clerk for the Ohio Department of Transportation. These people contributed their passion and expertise, and, in the case of two, their blood, to bring Abend- schoen's remains from a faraway field to a hero's grave.

"It just blows your mind," says DeEtta Scott, a distant relative whose DNA was used to help identify Abendschoen's bones. "Even though we didn't know him, we're pretty proud of him."

More than 78,000 World War II soldiers from various countries are still missing, says Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Pentagon's POW/MIA office, yet analysts believe that fewer than half of them could ever be identified. Tens of thousands of others sank in the deepest parts of the ocean or are buried in unmarked graves around the world, he says.

Left behind are family members seeking answers, wondering how and where their loved ones died. In many cases, they mourn a death without having a grave to visit. Some hold a spark of hope that their loved one did not perish, but lives on in some remote place. In time, these family members die, too, and with them go their unanswered questions.

It seems that only one living relative remembers Russell Abendschoen, his first cousin Edward Abendschoen. He's 87 now, one year older than the age Russell would be if he were alive, and he lives alone in a small apartment in York.

He had not thought about Russell in years when he received a letter from the military last January, informing him that his cousin's remains had been identified and that it was up to him, the next of kin, to make decisions about the burial.

He has only fleeting memories of his cousin, who moved to Detroit with his parents when he was a teenager. Russell was an active boy who had wavy black hair as a young man, Edward Abendschoen says, adding, "I wish that I had gotten to know him better."

In September 1944, Russell Abendschoen, a technical sergeant with the Army Air Corps, joined about 35,000 other Allied soldiers in Operation Market Garden, a mission to take over a series of bridges in the German-occupied Netherlands by using paratroopers and ground forces. The Allies hoped to cross the Rhine river into Germany and end the war as early as December 1944, according to military historians.

Although they experienced some initial successes, the Allies were unable to capture the final bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem. More than 11,000 Allied troops died in the operation. A 1977 star-studded movie about Market Garden was titled A Bridge Too Far.

Ralph "Zig" Boroughs, an 83-year-old retired teacher from Pickens, S.C., served as a paratrooper in Market Garden. He jumped out of a plane and parachuted through a thick gray cloud of smoke as gunshots exploded around him. "Everybody was scared, but we were more afraid of not doing our duty than we were of being killed or injured," he says.

On the fifth day of the operation, Abendschoen and his crewmates had just dropped off 15 Polish paratroopers south of Arnhem when flames started shooting from their C-47 plane. According to eyewitness accounts, the plane crashed and burned before anyone could escape.

In 1945 and 1946, Dutch citizens recovered some of the remains of the soldiers and buried them in a nearby cemetery. A few years later, U.S. military officials moved them to Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Kentucky. Buried under a single stone are remains of Abendschoen as well as his four crewmates: 1st Lt. Cecil W. Biggs of Teague, Texas; 1st Lt. William L. Pearce of San Antonio, Texas; 2nd Lt. Thomas R. Yenner of Kingston, Pa., and Staff Sgt. George G. Herbst of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Edward Abendschoen recalls that Russell's mother was devastated by the death of her only child and attended seances in the hopes of communicating with his spirit. One psychic told her that "he was all right and with Amelia Earhart," his cousin says, referring to the aviator.

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