Editor’s note: This is the fifth of a six-part story.
On June 15, Brian Papesh of Joliet received a call from the Army Repatriation Division.
The remains of his grandfather, Arthur Countryman, were just positively identified. Countryman was deemed missing in action in Germany’s Hürtgen Forest during World War II.
Papesh said he couldn’t believe the U.S. Army’s Reparations division now had a positive identification for Countryman and that the family really hadn’t expected it would happen.
“Years ago we submitted a cotton swab of saliva from my mother, and her nephew for nuclear DNA Profiling,” Papesh said in an email.” We thought nothing would ever come from this. We had been contacted annually to reassure us that his case was still considered to be in ‘active Pursuit’ by Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.”
Papesh also said that Countryman’s “Individual Deceased Personnel File” the family received in 2016 traced Countryman’s path into the front lines of the advancing Allied forces as they moved into Germany and even beyond his death and into the search for human remains after the aggression had ceased.
Representatives from the U.S. Army’s Reparations division met with the family on July 13 and explained that Countryman was actually recovered in 1947 and that the Army actually recovered almost a full body, Papesh said.
“He was decomposed pretty heavily,” Papesh said. “But they were able to identify his technical sergeant overcoat and arm patches … the Army did a very good job documenting where each human remains were found.”
The news release said that the American Graves Registration Command had the role of recovering missing American personnel in Europe following World War II and conducted several investigations in the Hürtgen area between 1946 and 1950.
However, the AGRC was unable to recover or identify Arthur’s remains, which were declared non-recoverable in September 1951, the release said.
But then a historian from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency who was studying unresolved American losses in the Hurtgen area several years after the end of World War II determined a set of unidentified remains, designated X-5430 Neuville, might belong to Countryman, the release said.
So the remains, which had been buried in Ardennes American Cemetery in 1950, were disinterred in April 2019 and sent to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska for identification.
Although Arthur is memorialized on the Walls of the Missing at Netherlands American Cemetery, an American Battle Monuments Commission site in Margarten, Netherlands, he was actually buried in Ardennes American Cemetery in 1950, the release said.
Papesh said he was told that they examined the remains of four unknown soldiers, Countryman and three who were ranked as private first class. Countryman was very well preserved, he added.
“They did an in-depth study and found he was the victim of overhead ordnance and shrapnel that came down from above,” Papesh said. “Back in those days, ordnance was fired in the tops of trees in the forest and exploded. Shrapnel and the trunks of trees is what killed them.”
Countryman had a broken forearm and trauma to his ribs on the inside, Papesh said, adding that it was “probably the trauma that killed him.”
“It’s pretty in-depth,” Papesh said again. “I’ve got a thick report here.”
The release said scientists from DPAA used dental and anthropological analysis along with circumstantial and material evidence. Scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA, Y chromosome DNA, and autosomal DNA analysis.
Countryman was “accounted for” by the DPAA on June 14, 2021. The following day, Papesh received the fateful phone call.
It was actually a local woodcutter who originally found Couuntryman and a couple of other bodies and then reported it, Papesh said. The American Graves Registration Command recovered Arthur’s remains in 1947, the release said.
Papesh later said the woodcutter was Peter Rippegather and he was a foreman for a tree service.
“He got in touch with the American forces, who followed him into the forest,” Papesh said. “He actually pinpointed the location where the remains were.”