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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Grave Task for a Knowing Nose

BUSSUM, Netherlands -- Lieutenant Harry Jongen has narrowed down an area of rough ground he thinks may be hiding a body lying in a makeshift grave.


He looks at the lie of the land, eyes the position of the trees and puts himself in the shoes of a murderer or enemy soldier to determine the best, most discreet place for a grave. He punctures the ground with a long solid steel probe and, when he meets the right kind of resistance -- not a weed, tree root, or stone -- he pulls the stick out and sniffs it.


He smells a corpse.


"I can sense it, smell it. Maybe I just have feeling for it. The difference between a root, a piece of wood, and a corpse is quite distinct. I can feel that difference," Jongen said.


"Harry the Nose" has earned his nickname after 26 years working on World War II field graves, locating and identifying bodies of soldiers, many still on missing-in-action lists, and ending years of torment for the victims' families.


Where sniffer dogs and scanning equipment fail, Jongen's nose is unerring. When all the signs are there, the final test is whether "Harry the Nose" can smell human remains.


"I look at the trees, at the vegetation, I ask myself 'where would I bury a body if I'd done it?' Fifty years is a long time, but if you look at the soil, you can see a sunken area where a grave may be," Jongen said.


"There are certain kinds of vegetation," he said. "Stinging nettles grow extremely well off a dead body. They live from calcium-rich earth -- and calcium is in bones.


"Finding a body is a combination of all these things -- and I've had a lot of success with this. But at the end of the day, you have to have that feeling and smell when you use the steel probe. It's something you either have or you don't."


The Dutch army's War Graves Service, or WGS, where Jongen works with two other identification specialists, aims to end the pain and insecurity of relatives of missing wartime soldiers.


On a laboratory table lies the skeleton of a German soldier found in a makeshift field grave in Nijmegen, in the south of the Netherlands.


His boots, ammunition, helmet and belt buckle help the team establish his nationality. His teeth and bone structure signal his age. And a single British bullet beneath his shoulder blade, behind where his heart had been, shows the cause of death.


"To dig out a dead body you have to be part archaeologist, part dentist, maybe a little bit Sherlock Holmes ... and be able to stand in the shoes of a murderer or a soldier who needs to bury a body," Jongen said. News of his unique skill is getting around. In 1993 the United Nations asked the WGS to go to former Yugoslavia to aid war-atrocity investigations for the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. "They asked all over the world, and it seemed we were the only ones that could do it, given our experience in digging up and identifying World War II victims," Jongen said.


The unit traveled to several locations including Pancrac Polya, a small region north of Zagreb in Croatia, where a number of 'missing' people were believed to have been buried.


Using his unique search and sniff combination, Jongen found a spot that he was sure could be a mass grave. "There was something there -- one, two, three or maybe four bodies," he said.


"But the others didn't believe me -- they thought 'What is this man trying to pull? He sticks a steel rod in the ground and, without seeing anything, tries to tell us there's a body down there.'


"I pricked the ground again and let them smell the end of the rod -- but they couldn't smell it. I was 100 percent convinced there were bodies there.


"Eventually they opened the 'grave.' There was a body. And a second and a third and a fourth. We found 19 bodies in that area," he said.


Jongen, 49, says trust in his unique sense of smell is growing, and identification teams from around the world are eager to learn from him. But he does not want his work portrayed as some kind of horror story. His nose is simply a tool of his trade. "I can smell different sorts of air. I can immediately tell perfumes apart -- and I also happen to have a very good nose for things that smell unpleasant," he said.