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Colorado team working to recover WWII pilot who crashed in France in 1944

In 1944, a pilot was killed when his B-17 crashed in a farmer's field. Now, there's an effort underway to bring him home.

COLORADO, USA — Generations after a World War II pilot's mission was cut short, a team from Colorado embarked on another in northern France.

"We have one mission, and it is to find that pilot and to bring him home," said Michele Koons.

Koons is curator of archeology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. She's used to working in places like Peru, digging up artifacts from ancient, pre-Incan civilizations. 

France is a first.

"It’s rolling country and hills, and it’s harvest season here, so lots of tractors and hay barrels," Koons said. "It looks a lot like impressionist paintings I would say."

Koons is part of a team led by Colorado State University's Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands (CEMML) and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

“We’re out here on a recovery mission to recover a pilot from a downed B-17 bomber crash from World War II," Koons said.

The plane went down 77 years ago in a farmer's field, and Koons said there were stories told about the wreckage sitting there for quite some time.

“We are finding lots of bits of plane and they are very, very small because they’ve been chopped up over the years from plows," she said.

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Ray Sumner is hopeful the mission in France will be as successful as the ones he led as an Army Lieutenant Colonel.

“This is definitely one of the most meaningful things that I’ve done personally in my nearly 30 years’ association with the United States Army and the Dept. of Defense," Sumner said.

Sumner, a staff member at CEMML and Ph.D. student at CSU, leads the team searching for the missing pilot.

“We’re doing everything we can to the work the site," he said.

In 2019, a team of archeologists surveying the site in northern France discovered pieces of wreckage they suspected belonged to the downed B-17. Sumner and Koons are continuing the mission to identify the pilot and return his remains to the United States.

“There are still real families out there that still have that pain and agony," Sumner said. "Those grandchildren, nephews, nieces, grandnieces that never knew these people and have heard the stories and are looking for that closure.”

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The team arrived in France in mid-August and plans to work until early September.

“It just feels electric when you’re out in the field because people are just so energetic to hopefully find [the pilot] and bring him home," Koons said.