Could Sgt. Eugene F. Darter be the WWII Unknown Buried at Arlington National Cemetery?

My brotherTomb of the Unknowns

The random way in which the US Government chose the Unknowns makes it possible that by brother’s remains are here.

 

In 1969, I traveled to Washington DC for the first time and visited the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. As I watched the Changing the Guard ceremony, I was so moved that chills went through my entire body, tears went down my face, and I began wondering if the World War II unknown could be my brother.

I learned that the Tomb of the Unknowns was first created when the World War I Unknown chosen from four identical caskets in France was interred in 1921. The selection and the interment of the World War II Unknown occurred in 1958. Each Unknown was selected from remains exhumed from cemeteries in Europe, Africa, Hawaii, and the Philippines. The procedure of selection was one Unknown from the European/African areas and one from the Pacific area were placed in identical caskets and taken aboard a navy ship. Navy First Class William R. Charette, then the US Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, selected the World War II unknown, and the remaining casket received a burial at sea.

The caskets from World War II and the Korean War arrived in Washington on May 28, 1958, where they lay in the Capitol Rotunda until the morning of May 30, when they were carried on caissons to Arlington National Cemetery. President Eisenhower awarded each of them the Medal of Honor, and the Unknowns of World War II and the Korean War were interred beside their World War I comrade.

This process was obviously designed so that anyone who has a beloved family member who was missing in action (MIA) in one of these theaters would know that it is possible that the Unknown from any one of these wars was their loved one. It sure worked for me because my MIA brother, S/Sgt Eugene Francis Darter of the US Army Air Corps, was lost just off shore Texel Island in the Wadden Sea and his remains could have washed ashore and become an “unknown” remain, buried locally, then reinterred in an American military cemetery (e.g., Margraten in south Netherlands).  His remains could have potentially been selected in the random process described in 1958.  Of course, the odds are very small, but it’s still possible!

The X-Files of American Unknowns

There exist at least 106 Unknown gravesites at the Netherlands American Military Cemetery (Margraten). Unknown grave sites (“Known Only To God”) are common at the twenty-four American military cemeteries around the world.  Each grave contains the remains of an Unknown that was unidentifiable.  On the back of the headstone of each Unknown grave is an X-Number, specific to that cemetery that identifies the grave to a corresponding file of information that exists in the Department of Defense offices in Washington, D.C.

I have wondered for years if my brother’s remains had washed ashore in the Wadden Sea or even North Sea (North Holland area) with no dog tag or other identifying marks. His remains would have been locally buried with some kind of marker and then disinterred by the American Graves Recovery teams that combed the area after the war. There would have been a forensic examination, and then if no identification was possible, the remains would have been sent for reburial at the Netherlands American Cemetery at Margraten. This is the cemetery that includes the Unknowns discovered in the North Netherlands area. It is clearly possible that S/Sgt. Eugene Francis Darter’s remains existed as an Unknown with an X-Number in this cemetery in 1958.

There are only 106 such Unknowns remaining at Margraten after hundreds have been identified (and their families notified) thanks to thorough forensic investigation. I have desired to examine the X-files for many years, but only recently obtained several DVDs that contain the Margraten X-flies.  As I began reviewing the X-files, I was indeed shocked at the details I encountered while examining file after file of tragedy. Unsung heroes all of them!  Some Unknowns were initially buried in local graveyards, some buried in isolated graves with wooden crosses hand marked as “American soldier” or “airman,” some laying deceased near a glider crash, some in a severely burned US tank, a few pulled from the Rhine and other rivers, two in a German bombed hospital, some remains recovered from a bomber or fighter wreckage, and several washed up on the shore of the North Sea, Wadden Sea, or Ijsselmeer. The remains varied from nearly a full body to only a few pounds after complete decomposition.

In trying to identify any of these remains as my brother Eugene Darter, I searched first for anything that would eliminate the Unknown in the X-file information such as an early death date, inland location, or non-airman uniform. If no definite negatives were found, I then searched for any potential favorable identification characteristics such as physical description, tooth chart, and specific injury as Eugene was shot through the arm and leg. My summary of an Unknown follows:

Designated Unknown X-2004 was found washed up on the North Beach of the Netherlands Terschilling Island on 29th September 1944. The body was buried October 2, 1944 in the island Allied Cemetery and labeled: Marker 126, “One-Unknown U.S.A. Flyer”. The remains were disinterred November 5, 1945 to the American Margraten Cemetery, Netherlands (Plot UU, Row 9, Grave 225). Before reburial, a forensic investigation was conducted that included at least the following: statement that the remains were badly decomposed, clothing and equipment (trousers, undershirt, drawers size 32, shoes, wool socks, fleece boots size 7-D, electrically heated flying suite, flying coveralls), member of Army Air Force, estimated age (undeterminable), height (5-ft 4-in), weight (undeterminable), head circumference 21-in, many characteristics about hair and facial hair (all undeterminable), skeletal chart that showed fingers missing, tooth chart, trunk of body recovered intact with large amount of flesh in hard dry state.

Terschilling Island is 35 miles northeast of Texel. It is more likely Eugene’s remains traveled south from Texel given the prevailing tide currents of the Wadden Sea. The discovery of the remains ten months after Eugene became MIA is not impossible if his Mae West was inflated and parachute became disconnected, both of which are unlikely. Favorable findings include clothing and equipment (trousers, undershirt, drawers size 32, shoes, wool socks, fleece boots size 7-D, electrically heated flying suite, flying coveralls), member of Army Air Force, height (5-ft 4-in, my brother was 5-ft 7-in), and head circumference 21-in. A tooth chart comparison was not clear and needs professional study.

Reviews of all of these X-files revealed a few interesting possibilities but with significant unfavorable characteristics. Reading one-hundred and twenty seven of these X-files has been a somber and saddening experience to more fully realize what these men went through as they made the ultimate sacrifice. Our family is incredibly grateful to all of those military and other personnel who took such great care to document and identify, as carefully as possible, these Unknown remains of US military personnel. The still ongoing process to identify and bring home these Unknowns is an ever changing situation that will continue to yield more and more success, especially with modern day forensic technology.

So yes, it is possible that Eugene is the WWII Unknown at Arlington National Cemetery, who received the Medal of Honor from President Eisenhower.  Of course, this is the dream of every family with a MIA family member – as it was designed to be.  However, our family prefers to simply think of Eugene as “gone with the wind” as Cor Ellen observed. He may be gone, but he will live forever in our minds and hearts.

 

Michael Darter is an Emeritus Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is an international authority in design, construction, rehabilitation, and management of highway and airfield infrastructure. He has spent the past 15 years in a dedicated cold case investigation trying to find out what happened to his only brother.  Please see www.gonewiththewindhe said.com for details and a short video.

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