Sergeant travels to Philippines in search of MIA remains

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Brigitte Brantley
  • 23rd Wing Public Affairs
Most servicemembers who give their lives in combat are honored with a military burial, receiving the traditional service complete with a 21-gun salute, flag-draped casket and sometimes even a flyover.

Although many of the families of the more than 78,000 individuals who served in World War II now designated as "missing in action" will never have that closure, one Moody sergeant is working with a nonprofit organization to ensure that as many as possible do.

Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Niznik, 23rd Maintenance Operations Squadron superintendent, recently spent seven days in the Philippines searching for a site where a downed aircraft from World War II is suspected to be.

"As Americans and as Airmen, we have a responsibility to bring home every individual who gave their life in defense of this country," said Sergeant Niznik, who has performed six research missions with the nonprofit Moore's Marauders, a global group of nearly 400 volunteers comprising doctors, geophysicists, anthropologists, law enforcement personnel and many others, with more than 90 percent being ex-military. "On the well-known POW/MIA flag, it clearly says 'you are not forgotten,' and we need to honor that promise."

Currently, actions have been set in motion to help find the "missing" aircrew of a C-47 Skytrain who disappeared on the Philippine island of Leyte in 1944. The approximately six crewmembers had been delivering supplies to guerilla forces that hid in the mountains and resisted Japanese invasions.

Sergeant Niznik's part in the mission is to locate where the plane went down and try to find and identify vital parts to confirm serials numbers and therefore matching the plane's identity to the missing aircrew report from World War II. However, due to the country's terrain, trying to find the plane was a challenge.

"The day we went out to find the wreckage was our second day in the jungle as we had gone out scouting the day before," said Sergeant Niznik. "By this point, we were already banged up, bruised, blistered and scratched. Because of steep mountains and the rough, rainy weather, what would have ordinarily been a two-hour trip took us much, much longer."

Often the trails were overgrown, having not been walked by Americans since World War II, and the width ranged from six inches to two feet.

"It is staggering to realize that these trails that were so difficult for us to merely walk on for a few hours had been used by the locals in defense against invading Japanese troops for years," said Sergeant Niznik.

Getting the remains back to the family is what it's all about and requires willing individuals who will push forward.

"Despite all the physical and mental hardships of the trip, it was nothing compared to what those who were MIA or a POW must have gone through," Sergeant Niznik said. "Many of Moore's Marauders are ex-military members who believe in the great cause of bringing back those who were left behind. We all like to think that if we were ever in such a situation, we could have faith in the hope that others were out there looking for us."

Finally, the group came to a point where they just couldn't go any further. With the amount of time and daylight left, the whole group did not have enough fresh water to stay the night, so for safety reasons, an unusual decision was made.

"At this point, we decided to give the two local guides our equipment and show on a map where we believed the wreckage to be and we sent them off into the woods," said Sergeant Niznik. "Because they do this sort of physical activity nearly every day, it was much easier for them. An important part of this was getting them to use our GPS to pinpoint the location so other teams who play a further role in the Marauders' mission could return."

The guides dug out more than a foot of mud that had accumulated since the crash, attempting to locate vital parts such as the fuselage that had usable serial numbers, but unfortunately they were unable to find any of those pieces.

"Even though they couldn't find exactly what we wanted, they did bring back a small collection of random pieces from the crash site," said Sergeant Niznik. "The next morning in a small village, we were sorting through these pieces trying to see whether any of them could lead to a possible identification of the plane.

"One of the guys had picked up an odd piece and then laid it aside, believing it to be nothing more than a piece of padding from one of the seats," Sergeant Niznik added. "When I picked it up and turned it inside out, I realized it was actually part of the tire tread from a jeep. Later on that day, we had an 80-year-old woman come to us and tell us about how when she was a young newly-wed, her husband and her had played in the jungle on an old jeep."

Considering that the primary cargo of the C-47 had been gasoline and a jeep, this was a major find and meant that even though it could not be accepted as 100 percent proof, the crew could be confident of success.

Although this mission only lasted a few days, the entire process of locating an aircraft and eventually getting the remains home can take much longer.

"Preparation work and research alone can take several years," said Robert Atwater, Moore's Marauders special assistant to the chief executive and archaeologist technician. "Throughout this time, there are also other aspects such as protocols from many different countries and organizations, diplomacies, and individual and group efforts.

"There is then final reconnaissance of the area before onsite archaeological site can be done, followed by the exhumation of any human remains which are then turned over to appropriate agencies and families, and then eventually buried," he added. "The motto for Moore's Marauders is 'Acta non verba,' or 'actions not words.' I like to think that 'walking the talk' is what we are doing and the promise General Douglas MacArthur made to the Filipino people in 1942 is the same one we are making to the six men we left behind- we will return."

Counting the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and both World Wars, more than 92,000 men and women are considered MIA.

Any individual who would like more information about the group can go to

Editor's note: The appearance of the above hyperlink does not constitute endorsement or affiliation by Moody Air Force Base or the U.S. Air Force.