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Bringing a South Dakota WWII veteran home

SSG Walter Nies 1.jfif
Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency
U.S. Army Air Forces Staff Sgt. Walter Nies

This interview is from SDPB's daily public affairs show, In the Moment with Lori Walsh.

The remains of a WWII soldier killed in a German POW camp are being returned to South Dakota. We talk with Dr. Carrie Brown, Laboratory Manager at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base about the efforts to bring Sgt. Walter Nies home.

Lori Walsh:
An American World War II veteran is coming home. The remains of a South Dakota man killed during the war are to be in interred in Eureka, South Dakota next week.

US Army Air Force's Staff Sergeant Walter Nies died in the German POW camp Stalag Luft 6, that was on May 28th, 1944. Well after the war borders had shifted and Stalag Luft 6 was mapped inside Lithuania, which was deep inside the Soviet occupation zone. Nies's body was thought to be inaccessible, decades passed. And then in 2019, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency was able to partner with an American archeology group and they were able to identify Nies's remains through the DPAA lab in Nebraska. And nearly 80 years later, Walter Nies is coming home.

Dr. Carrie Brown is with the forensic lab at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. She's with us now on the phone. Dr. Brown, welcome. Thanks for being here.

Dr. Carrie Brown:
Hi, Lori. Thank you so much.

Lori Walsh:
This is an emotional and powerful story, but I also want to talk about the science. Tell me about the challenges, obstacles, and the science behind identification.

Dr. Carrie Brown:
Well, each case is completely unique and I think that's the exciting part. Every day we come in and we have a different challenge in front of us.

And so for Nies, we actually used multiple lines of evidence to make his identification, starting with actually the archeology that was conducted onsite with one of our archeologist anthropologists here in Nebraska, as well as a Lithuanian partner out in the field. And we used the provenience, so where the remains were located, to actually say that it was a single person and associated with American items. And so we started there.

The remains came to us here where they were assigned to an anthropologist to write up, looked at each individual bone. We also sent samples out to Dover, the Armed Forces medical examiner system DNA lab out in Dover, Delaware, and were able to get DNA from the remains and then match it up in addition to dental records we had for him. And the final component of all of this was he actually was buried with medical equipment, medical tubing, which was consistent, actually, with the circumstances of his death. And so that entire package went forward as his identification.

Lori Walsh:
Tell me what we know about his service and about his time in the POW camp. What can you tell us?

Dr. Carrie Brown:
He was actually a member of an air crew that was shot down. In our case work here, we do see a lot of air crews. But less common is to see air crew members that survived and then are taken into a POW camp. And so he was actually shot down but survived and then went to a German-run POW camp.

And differing accounts of actually how he died. One is that he was trying to escape and another is that he was going to the latrines in the early morning. And the record differs based on which side of the history you're looking at.

But then, this many decades later, we're able to go back with our partners and excavate him and bring him home.

Lori Walsh:
How often is the identification successful in this way where you can bring clarity and a certain amount of closure to family members and people in this case in South Dakota as well?

Dr. Carrie Brown:
It's a tricky question to answer how often. I will say that last year we were successful for 166 first time accounting for identifications of missing service members. I don't know that I could give a particular statistic.

But I do know that I would like to convey that we don't stop trying, even when cases are hard. And so our ultimate goal for every case that comes in, to the extent that's reasonably possible, is to get that identification.

Some cases take as little as eight days. We had a case we did in eight days. And most cases take between two to three years to resolve. And some we're still working for the past 30 years until we can get new technologies that give us some answers.

Lori Walsh:
Tell me what it means to the United States military, to the family, and to the people who are doing this work to move on to this stage where remains are being returned and interred in Walter Nies's hometown.

Dr. Carrie Brown:
Since we're on the radio, I'll paint a picture of our office space. And that is, if you walked around to each one of our desks, every single person here will have at least one photograph of a case that they've worked on that's moved forward to identification. So I, for example, have a framed picture of twins, Leo and Rudolph Blitz from the USS Oklahoma who are buried in Lincoln, Nebraska. And I also have several other folks that I've worked on throughout the years.

And so every day we come in and we see these faces that greet us. And so for us, it's the ultimate giving back to our nation that we can do for people that have served, the people are serving now, and they're families that have waited in some instances now 80 years for their loved one to come home.

And so it's our promise to everyone, again, that is serving or has served and their families that we'll do whatever we can to try to get that service member back to American soil and home to their family.

Lori Walsh:
Dr. Carrie Brown, you are my hero. Thank you for your service at the forensic lab at Offutt Air Force Base there in Nebraska. And we really appreciate you joining us and telling the story today. You've made such a difference. Thank you.

Dr. Carrie Brown:
Thanks so much, Lori. And I will give one plug. We do have various social media websites if folks want to go on to them. And we also have dpaa.mil is our public-facing website. If you'd like to learn more about our mission and also learn about how you can give DNA in case you have a missing service member, that's all on there. Thanks.

Lori Walsh:
Thank you so much. The remains of Eureka native Walter Nies will be interred December 9th at Johannesthal Cemetery. Graveside services for US Army Air Forces Staff Sergeant Walter Nies will be performed by Carlsen Funeral Home and Crematory in Ashley, North Dakota, and that's preceding the internment.

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