ON A SUMMER’S day in July 1943, a USA B-25 Mitchell bomber left Tunisia in North Africa on a mission to attack the Sciacca Aerodrome in Sicily. On board was a crew of six including 27-year-old US Army Air Forces 2nd Lt Gilbert Haldeen Myers, the co-pilot.
But as the aircraft approached its target, the B-25 bomber was struck by anti-aircraft fire and crashed in a field about 1.5 miles from the aerodrome.
One crew member bailed out of the B-25 before it crashed, witnesses reported, but Myers’ remains were never recovered and he was declared missing in action. There were no survivors nor any record of passengers being taken prisoner.
Around 72,000 American personnel are still unaccounted for from the Second World War, with around 39,000 deemed to be recoverable. For years, Myers (pictured) was one of those individuals. In 1947, investigators conducted search and recovery operations near Sciacca but could not locate anything linking back to Myers.
But last year, nearly 80 years on from the B-25 crash, that changed. Forensic experts from Cranfield University’s Recovery and Identification of Conflict Casualties team, working with the US Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency, travelled to Sciacca to undertake a painstaking investigation. It entailed meticulous examination of tonnes of soil, aiming to recover fragments of human remains or personal effects crucial for identifying crew members.
And in October, they announced they had located human remains belonging to Myers, identifying him through DNA analysis.
“This deployment was our longest yet,” said Dr David Errickson, senior lecturer in archaeology and anthropology at Cranfield Forensic Institute. “During our operations, we systematically excavated the ground, meticulously examining every piece that could possibly be bone or other evidence.”
The team of 20 employed wet screening, a process where excavated material is passed through water to separate and analyse human remains and artifacts. The human remains were sent to the DPAA Laboratory for examination and identification and in August, DPAA identified them as belonging to Myers. They also recovered plane wreckage parts
Cranfield’s Forensic Institute has has been involved in the investigation of several aircraft crashes in Europe, including a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a Douglas A-20 Havoc and a Martin B-26 Marauder, with a missionin the planning stage to the recovery site of a Boeing B-17.
“The recovery of 2nd Lt Myers’ remains not only facilitates a proper full military honours burial but also allows the family to receive any personal effects found,” says Dr Errickson. “Most importantly, it brings closure for the families of those missing or killed in action.”
Myers’ name is recorded on the Walls of the Missing at Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Nettuno, Italy, along with others still missing from the Second World War.
Dr Nicholas Márquez-Grant, a forensic anthropologist at Cranfield Forensic Institute, adds: “Sometimes excavations like these can yield nothing or remain ambiguous. However, one small piece of evidence can be crucial in identifying an individual. In this case, playing a role in the quest to locate a missing serviceman was a profound privilege, bringing closure to Gilbert Haldeen Myers’ family.”