IT and US: The Italian General searching for missing American soldiers 80 years ago
- WTI Magazine #151 May 21, 2022
For three decades, volunteers have been trying to fulfill a promise made by the U.S. government in 1945: to bring home the 80,000 U.S. soldiers lost during World War II. "Keeping America's Promise" is the slogan of Project Recover, an NGO founded by physician and chemist Patrick Scannon.
Finding the remains of someone missing for nearly 80 years may seem like a mission impossible, but it wouldn't be the first case for Dr. Scannon: before becoming a biodefense adviser at the White House, he developed clinical therapies for 35 years with his biotechnology company.
Today, Project Recover operates in more than 20 countries relying on the efforts of hundreds of passionate volunteers. Entrepreneur Dan Friedkin, owner of A.S. Roma soccer team, presides over the board of directors, while the board is composed of professionals from the fields of aviation, archaeology, navy, parachuting and history. But also former special agents, former Chiefs of Staff, former astronauts and, of course, former soldiers.
With support from the U.S. Department of Defense and collaboration with the University of Delaware's College of Earth, Ocean and Environment and the Scripps International Oceanographic Institute, the determined researchers have already been able to identify 500 aircraft wrecks and 3,000 possible human remains around the world.
So far, they have painstakingly returned 15 of them to their families, but their goal is to recover all of the remains. The secret to their success is a rigid method that consists of seven phases: historical research, planning, scouting, documentation, recovery, identification and repatriation. Each mission can take several months, in some cases even years, and the tools used are state-of-the-art.
Since a few months there is an Italian in charge of all the Project Recover activities in Europe: his name is Aldo Costigliolo, he is 59 years old and is a decorated Brigadier General of the Italian Army, now in reserve. He accepted this new assignment for free.
Born in Genoa, he enlisted in the Ligurian military district shortly after turning 18, without telling his parents, but having spoken at length with his grandfather, a World War II officer who passed on to him the passion that would characterize 40 years of his life. He started as an artilleryman in the Alpine Troops, and then he participated in NATO, UN and EUROFOR (EUropean Rapid Operational FORCE, active from 1995 to 2012) missions. In Italy he followed ground operations, intelligence analysis, coordination of foreign interventions, logistics command and training units. He also lead an important mission in Afghanistan. For 6 months, in fact, Costigliolo was head of the Provincial Reconstruction Unit in Herat: thanks to a budget of 5 million euros, together with his men he built 13 schools, 4 clinics, 1 fire station, kilometers of roads and sewers and several government buildings. Today he describes that period as a chess game that has produced useful results making him proud, even if he had to respond to some threats he prefers not to talk about. His career ended with his promotion to Sub Chief of Staff, after having received several honors such as Cavaliere Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana and Bronze Cross of Merit of the Italian Army.
Costigliolo recounts learning about Project Recover by chance, when in 2018 the organization was looking for logistical support ahead of a preliminary study in the Bel Paese. He remembers immediately feeling a special connection, it was exciting to touch base with the story. He confesses that the first meeting took place in a top secret location in the Tuscan archipelago that a few months later would deliver important discoveries thanks also to some old local fishermen (among his best sources). The following exploratory underwater expedition would have confirmed the positive findings: he found for the first time in front of remains of the Second World War. The following year the pandemic stopped the operations, but the General's team continued to plan missions throughout Europe as well as the rest of the world. The last Italian mission was in 2021, in the northeast of the peninsula, in a heavy area that required land and water interventions.
His projects are shrouded in secrecy until they are completed to safeguard and protect them, after they have been stolen in the past. "These are thieves who insult families waiting for those remains," Costigliolo adds. When he describes his work to me, he talks as if he were in a cold case. He resorts to the best science and technology of the 21st century: cameras, video cameras, remotely operated submarines, drones, sonar, magnetometers, metal detectors and bone detectors. Some of the instruments, he tells me, are worth more than a million dollars. Thanks to experts from the government agency DPAA (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency), forensic analysis is conducted on the remains and DNA samples are extracted, which are then compared with those of family members.
"We do this," explains the General, "because we are human beings. We invest energy and resources believing that it is important to recover not only the memory, but also justice and dignity, despite the fact that almost a century has passed. The promise to leave no one behind is one of the foundations of military action, especially in America. Therefore, it is essential to restore honor to a person who has lost his or her life in service to his or her country. In addition, during our activities, we allow universities that partner with us to train. The game is worth the risk, in all respects."
The Italian army did something similar in the '90s, organizing several missions, difficult and long, to recover the remains of the Alpini fallen in the campaign in Russia. When Costigliolo joined the project it was like following a common thread. He wants to specify that to see comrades come back home wrapped in a tricolor or bring the signs of wounds suffered are episodes that cannot leave you indifferent. Having worn the uniform, he knows what sacrifice means.
Today he considers himself lucky, he would do it all again and is satisfied with his life. He says he has always liked the word “servant of the state”, the idea of being of service to your country. He is happy to have given his existence for the ideals he believes in, he is proud of it. Unfortunately, history is cyclical and we too often forget the past. And so, under the threat of a third world war, there are those who still go in search of the irremediable wounds of the last one. Staying home to enjoy retirement is out of the question: "As long as I have a physique that allows it and a spirit that provides the energy, I like to try to do something useful for the community. Selfishly, I say it makes me feel good. I'm enjoying retirement, we have an eternity to rest anyway."