Almost 80 years ago, a squadron of American flyers set out to take part in an Allied attack on Berlin at the height of the Second World War. One of the crew aboard the B-17 Flying Fortress was a young technical sergeant named William Teaff, of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF).
It was March 6th, 1944. Germany was beginning to lose the war, but there were still campaigns to be fought by the British, American and other Allied forces. This attack was one of those campaigns.
While flying over the Netherlands on their way to that battle, the B-17 was spotted by the Germans and shot down. The men survived the attack, but all were captured and sent to Stalag Luft 6, a prisoner of war camp (PoW) near what was then the town of Heyoekrug, in Germany.
Some of the crew survived imprisonment, but Teaff did not. He perished in the POW camp on July 10th, 1944. Only three Americans in total died in that particular camp, and Teaff was one of the unlucky ones, though he didn’t directly die because of the strains of the camp. He died of diphtheria, a highly infectious and indiscriminate disease that mainly affects the nose and throat.
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Though the war ended around a year later, the problem of getting the remains of some of the PoWs home, including William Teaff’s, were just beginning. For decades, it seemed like an almost impossible venture.
There were many hurdles facing both the United States military and Teaff’s family.
One such problem was that borders were redrawn after the war. The Soviets and the Americans were soon suspicious of each other, and mutual cooperation was minimal. The area where the PoW camp once stood became part of Lithuania, then part of the USSR.
Although American military officials knew of Teaff’s death and worked to get his body back to the States, they were stymied by bureaucracy at every turn. Ultimately, they discovered that the camp had been demolished in 1955, and the land where it once stood had been turned over to agricultural endeavors.
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During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the USAAF kept trying to locate Teaff and the remains of the two other men who died in the same camp. Finally, in 1954, Teaff was labelled as “un-recoverable,” a term used by the military to describe a person whose body is impossible to retrieve. Politics and geography were standing in the way of Teaff coming home and being reunited with his loved ones.
End of the Soviet Union
But then, in 1992, Lithuania became independent. As it was no longer in Russia’s sphere of influence, there was a glimmer of hope for getting Teaff back.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Authority (DPAA) in the U.S. began working with two organizations, one in the States and the other in Lithuania, that handle archaeological projects.
Last summer, these two groups worked together with the DPAA to identify where the graves of Teaff and the two other veterans were buried. Once they had found them, they sent the remains to a facility in Nebraska last August for formal identification. Using various methods, including war records, dental records and circumstantial details, the team positively identified Teaff.
Teaff’s remains actually returned to American soil in April, an announcement by the U.S. military clarified. However, officials did not alert the public to the development until early July, after they had the opportunity of informing his family in what they called a “full briefing.”
Thanks to advances in technology and lab tests that could identify a tiny particle on almost any surface, Teaff was able to be identified and brought home from overseas, where his remains had languished for almost 80 years.
At the time of this writing, no details had been released about Teaff’s funeral, or whether he will be laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery, in Virginia, or back in his home state of Ohio.