Archaeology Program Student and Veteran Ramon Espinoza Excavates WWII Crash Site in Germany

Aug. 30, 2023

Ramon Espinoza ’26, a rising sophomore enrolled in the Program in Archaeology, participated in a summer 2023 field study in Germany at the site of a 1944 crash of a World War II airplane as part of the Department of Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) efforts to account for missing personnel. He joined a team led by Andrea Palmiotto of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Before enrolling at Princeton as a transfer student, Espinoza spent five years serving in the U.S. Army as an airborne infantryman, including a deployment to Afghanistan. He is deeply invested in supporting veterans and currently serves as an ambassador for the Heroic Hearts Project and as director of advocacy for Princeton Student Veterans. 


A Field Study with a Heightened Sense of Purpose

By Ramon Espinoza ‘26

Nearly ten summers ago, I had, for the first time, seen the doors of an airplane slam open mid-flight. My heart pounding, deafened by the wind rushing inside the cabin, and staring at the drop zone below, I prepared to make a strong exit out of the open door to complete my training towards becoming a paratrooper in the U.S. Army. As part of the curriculum, weeks before the jump, I spent countless hours memorizing innumerable attributes of parachutes— their nomenclature, number of suspension lines, rates of descent, etc.— with the expectation of being able to regurgitate the information, in excruciating detail, upon command. Though the facts and figures offered little comfort and have even faded over time, what cemented in my mind was the rich history behind the Airborne Corps and my pride in being accepted into it.

Ramon Espinoza takes measurements at the excavation site

Ramon Espinoza takes measurements at the excavation site (Photo/Emily Sykora)

This summer, I was honored to participate in a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) partnered archaeological dig in Baden-Würtemmburg, Germany, that offered me a new perspective on the Corps' history and contextualized the significance of their role during past conflicts. Our project's mission was to recover and identify missing service members from World War II – an aviation crew that crashed and went down while in the line of duty. The excavation centered around the recovery of human remains, associated artifacts, and remnants of their downed plane that may lead to finding the fallen service members inside. They were a young crew, close to the age I was when I gritted my teeth, closed my eyes, and leaped out of that C-130 aircraft at Airborne school.

This summer field school itself was challenging yet rewarding and offered its participants, like myself, a chance to understand the stages of the archaeological process under the guidance of experienced professionals. I gained familiarity with tools of the field like GPR (Ground-penetrating Radar) and surveying tools via total station and GPS to find and mark sites of interest. Additionally, I had the chance to employ my knowledge from other classes and refined subjects relating to stratigraphy, excavation techniques, and artifact analysis. I gained a strong familiarity with not only soils and minerals but also varying artifacts. I learned firsthand how they look, feel, and among the braver of us, even taste. Providing a unique blend of theoretical knowledge and practical skills, the field school was critical in forming my understanding of archaeological work that I would venture to say is impossible to replicate in a classroom setting.

Apart from the technical aspects of the dig, the experience also provided me with a deeper understanding of the historical context of the region our team worked in. During the work week, for example, we met local archaeologists, forestry service workers, the police chief, and on one occasion, even a witness of the crash; all eager to assist us and share their knowledge of the events. I was awed by the locals' level of hospitality, they brought us special lunches, gave us tours, and worked alongside us on their days off from their jobs to help us accomplish our mission. The level of support I encountered from them for the work being done was unparalleled and I did not doubt that the memory of each member of the aircrew was kept alive through their efforts as much as ours— their stories inextricably intertwined with that of the town well after our project ends.

Cobblestoned street in an old German village

Rothenburg, Germany (Photo/Ramon Espinoza)

Of course, there is more to Germany and its history than the war, and as a much-needed and well-deserved recess from excavations, our cohort also explored the surrounding area. Immersing ourselves in the culture and at times simply enjoying the anonymity found in the bigger cities, I gained a sense of each location's distinctive essence. I explored Christmas museums and Roman bathhouses and enjoyed the renowned German foods along the way. Through the excursions, I discovered German art and traditions. Exploring the Roman ruins unveiled a fascinating layer of history, showcasing the legacy left behind by ancient people on German soil. Venturing through the picturesque landscapes I was reminded of the country's tapestry of stories that spans millennia. The excursions enriched my cultural knowledge and provided an opportunity to build cohesion among my cohort—a team of students from across the country that I would be lucky to work with again. Even as the field school dwindles to its last days, I find comfort in the fact that I will be carrying back a treasure trove of experiences.

Being accepted into the field school alone was a tremendous honor, and an amazing opportunity to not only find where my identity as a veteran and academic interest intersect but also to better understand the value of having Princeton's support in the pursuit of my studies. Before being accepted into the Program in Archaeology this past spring, my interest in the field was not much more than a fleeting curiosity, only developing fully into a dedicated interest after speaking with others within the program. More specifically, fellow Princeton veterans like Shaun Cason ‘23 who made me aware of the projects available through the department— projects through the DPAA that resonated with me. Still, finding a government-partnered agency that promises to deliver quality curriculum and real-world experiences was a challenge. I struggled to find an opportunity until I reached out to faculty within the Anthropology department, who, within the same day, put me in touch with the field school director. Even after being accepted, my peers within the transfer community helped me navigate summer funding applications and helped me understand potential hurdles to anticipate. Without the help of the alumni, staff, and student groups on campus, this opportunity may never have been presented to me— I would be remiss not to express my immense gratitude for their advice and guidance.

The DPAA partnership opened a world of possibilities for me, aligning my interest in archaeology with a sense of purpose and service. I am very thankful for Princeton's flexibility in allowing me to find a project and accept the offer to participate in the field school. It was an invaluable experience that shaped my academic journey and reinforced my sense of individuality through the freedom offered to forge my own path through Princeton.

Espinoza takes measurements at dig site

Ramon Espinoza uses a stadia rod to record coordinates of artifacts in the GPR station (Photo/Ashley Gath)