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Litchfield siblings join hunt for MIAs

he souvenirs from Marjorie and Eric Ploeger's trip to Papua New Guinea are many. There's the handmade bow and arrows, a decorative piece of pottery, handwoven bags for collecting food, a specially sewn dress, and perhaps among the most important -- the dog tags they wore while searching for World War II airmen missing in action.

The sister and brother from Litchfield joined a group of 30 others from the MIA Hunters organization in May to search crash sites in the mountains of Papua New Guinea on the world's second-largest island.

The trip was part grand adventure and part humanitarian mission for the group, which visited more than 90 different sites that were thought to contain the remains of World War II planes and their crews. About 50 were considered likely to contain remains.

The Ploegers' interest in the trip came when Ann Ploeger, their mother, heard MIA Hunters founder Bryan Moon interviewed about the 2010 mission. She mentioned it to Marjorie.

Marjorie was intrigued by the idea, but "I knew they wouldn't let me go if Eric didn't go," she said.

So she convinced her brother that it would be a good idea. Marjorie, 23, just graduated from Minnesota State University at Mankato with a bachelor's degree in biochemistry. She will attend pharmacy school at the University of Minnesota in the fall. Eric, 21, will be a senior at the University of St. Thomas, studying business.

Their parents, Ron and Ann, agreed to the trip, and they were accepted for the last two slots on the trip.

They had to pay for their trips, too. A number of area American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts supported them, as did many of their relatives. Both their grandfathers served in World War II, and they have had many relatives who have served.

The people preparing for the May trip were warned that it would be physically challenging. Both of them worked out to prepare and had to get lots of immunizations. Eric even used a hot yoga gym to work out in extreme heat, but there was no way for them to prepare for the humidity.

"We were physically ready but not mentally prepared for what we would face," Eric said.

They were in Papua New Guinea during what is called the dry season, but it still rained about 3 inches a night in a quick downpour.

The MIA Hunters are an important part of bringing home the remains of these airmen missing in action.

"They weren't left there because we don't care about those people," Eric said, but it is difficult for the military to send search missions into foreign countries.

The MIA hunters, who are not operating in an official capacity, are able to travel as hiking, mountain climbing tourists. When they find a site that is likely to contain human remains, they record the GPS coordinates.

The hunters do not recover remains but leave that to the military. Red tape is greatly diminished if the military can approach a government with the exact GPS location of a crash site with human remains.

The terrain they covered in their hunt was rough and inhospitable.

Both of them treated their clothing and bedding with insect repellent before they left. Eric had grown a beard, thinking it would protect his face in the jungle. It did protect him, but he found he got searched more often in airports. It took six flights and 26 hours in the air to reach Papua New Guinea.

Both are experienced campers, but Papua New Guinea was a different world. They had never climbed mountains, and they were startled by the size of the creatures in the tropical climate, even the insects.

"You can see everything coming, even if it's a mosquito," Eric said. They were quite lucky, though. Neither of them got sick. Marjorie had one mosquito bite and tangled with some jungle poison ivy.

In many remote villages, the residents have never seen a white person before, Marjorie said. They were friendly and very generous, but sometimes they thought the white people were quite strange.

Eric asked if he could have a piece of broken pottery. He got a strange look. To them, it was worthless. They offered him a "good" pot, but he liked the design in that piece, so they let him have it.

"Crazy American," Marjorie muttered as they joked that the villagers are probably still telling stories about the white man who wanted a broken pot.

The people in the mountain villages eat a lot of greens and taro, which is like a potato, Marjorie said. "They use their pigs to buy wives."

The pineapples, coconut and papaya grown in the mountains were delicious, she said. "Up in the villages, it was probably the best food you could have."

Nearly everyone carries a machete there, and the MIA hunters did, too. Marjorie gave hers to her dad for Father's Day.

The primary goal of the trip was to locate the remains of missing Americans, but their group found a couple Japanese planes, too. The locations will be reported to the Japanese government.

"Being able to find some of them was just as satisfying," Marjorie said. It doesn't matter what side they fought on, all of the people who died in those jungles left family behind, she added, and everyone was "somebody's baby."

A major find on the May trip was a Japanese killing field from World War II. A group of men who lived nearby had been made to carry wounded American and Australian airmen to that site, where the Japanese killed and buried them.

"They had been waiting a long time for somebody to come so they could tell their story," Marjorie said.

When people in remote villages saw the dog tags worn by the hunters, they often recognized them. In some cases, villagers had kept dog tags from wounded or dead servicemen.

"The villagers all know about these sites," Marjorie said.

Ann Ploeger said she was pleased to find out that "our loved ones were actually taken care of by these people."

Marjorie and Eric Ploeger are willing to speak to groups about their experience hunting for MIAs. They may be contacted at 320-444-7595 for Marjorie or 320-221-3136 for Eric.