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Nova Scotia

Halifax university’s technology to help U.S. find missing soldiers on former European battlefields

An archaeological team from Saint Mary’s University will travel to France this summer to use ground-penetrating radar and other technology to help a US defense agency recover and identify military personnel missing since World War II.

The team from the University of Halifax’s Department of Anthropology has agreed to work with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which is responsible for identifying the remains of missing soldiers, sailors and aircrew from past conflicts.

Anthropology professor Jonathan Fowler, one of Canada’s leading researchers in archaeological geophysics and remote sensing, said he received an email from the US agency’s director “out of the blue” in 2017.

The email, he said, “told us that their mandate is so broad that they are always looking for partners to help them with this work,” Fowler said in an interview. “Word had gotten around about what we were doing, so we showed up on their radar and they reached out.”

The professor works with ground-penetrating radar, which uses radio waves to locate the depth of buried objects. He also uses magnetic surveys and aerial photography.

Fowler’s previous research was used to map burials related to the 1873 sinking of the SS Atlantic near Lower Prospect, NS and nearly 300 unmarked graves in the Acadian Cemetery prior to deportation to Grand-Pre National Identify Historic Site. He was also called upon to assist the Sipekne’katik First Nation of Nova Scotia in locating potential graves on the site of the former Shubenacadie Indian Residential School.

Radar and magnetic surveys

“We have worked with Saint Mary’s to create an appropriate MOU with our American counterparts and now we are beginning this new collaboration,” Fowler said.

Fowler said the university’s technology is of interest to the US agency, which does not typically use radar or magnetic surveys at most of its dig sites.

“They originally came to us looking for traditional boots locally, for assistance from a field engineer,” he said. “In our conversations with them, we pointed out that there are many benefits to trying these (relatively) new technologies.”

Saint Mary Associate Professor Aaron Taylor is set to lead the first field project, which is scheduled for July and will focus on a World War II bomber crash site in north-west France. Taylor said he will be taking a crew of 16, including eight of the most qualified students from across Canada.

It’s likely the team will find some remains, he said, given the meticulous research the US agency has already done in France.

“This site was surveyed and it was determined from the logs and mission report that someone was in the rubble,” Taylor said. “We should try to find enough bone material to make an identification.”

1,855 Canadian crew members are missing in action

The professor said any material found at the site is sent to a lab in Hawaii, which performs the painstaking process of identification.

Taylor, who has a passion for military history, said he was frustrated that Canada didn’t have a similar program to locate its missing persons. Instead, he said, Canada employs a forensic anthropologist – working on a small budget – to identify remains of missing military personnel that are unintentionally unearthed, usually by farmers and contractors and mostly on European battlefields.

Taylor said 1,855 Canadian crew members were listed as missing in action.

“We know where a lot of these crashes are, they’re in post-action mission reports,” he said. “So my ultimate goal is to have a program for Canada. We have a sacred duty to bring home our missing homes whenever possible and offer closure to their families.”

According to its website, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency is searching for missing personnel from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf Wars and other recent conflicts. The agency says more than 81,500 American service workers are missing.

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