Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Canadian family hopes to have found long-lost relative who fought in Second World War buried in German cemetery

One by one, the French forensic team pulled bits of bone from six fibreglass boxes that had been locked away since the end of the Second World War. Photos were snapped and measurements taken. Medicine Hat, Alta., lawyer Lawrence R. Gordon looked on from six feet away.

It wasn’t until halfway through Friday’s exhumation of unknown United States Army soldier ‘X-3,’ buried in a German grave in France, when the forensic team scrutinized a jawbone that Mr. Gordon went from nervous to elated: His uncle and namesake — a man he had never met but who might be there, in bits in those boxes — was missing the back two teeth on his lower right jaw when he signed up with the U.S. military a month after Pearl Harbor.

“There was a very big lump in my throat until you could visibly see that that tooth was missing,” Mr. Gordon said, the detail confirming, to him at least, that his uncle, who died in a blast in Normandy as part of a car crew on Aug. 13, 1944, was now found. “It was incredible.”

For almost 60 years, PFC Lawrence S. Gordon’s death was an “open wound” for the southern Saskatchewan family that “never healed,” his nephew said. In the years before his death in 1989, the young Mr. Gordon’s father would wonder aloud about his second youngest brother, whose flame-licked wallet packed with pictures of the old farmhouse was the only item returned to the family from their lost son. Letters written to the U.S. Army offered no clues, and so Mr. Gordon made a vow that he would track down the remains of his long-lost uncle.

“It had started as a promise to merely visit his grave,” the father of two said by phone from Rennes, France, where he travelled last week to be there for the exhumation.

Initial information from the U.S. Army led him, in 2000, to the Brittany American Cemetery in Saint-James, France, where 4,410 of Second World War American soldiers, many of whom fought in the Normandy and Brittany campaigns of 1944, are laid to rest. His name was posted on a wall dedicated to unknown soldiers, but the remains were nowhere to be found.

Twelve years later, in March 2012, Mr. Gordon received a call from Jed Henry, a man in Middleton, Wisconsin who had been researching the Reconnaissance Company of the 32nd Armored Regiment of 3rd Armored Division, in which his grandfather served.

“Jed, at that time, pointed out to me that there were 44 that had been killed in action from the reconnaissance unit from the Second World War — they had recovered 43 bodies and only one of them was missing,” Mr. Gordon said. “Jed’s goal was to find my uncle, so needless to say I was quick to endorse that.”

The two men worked together and learned that all but one of the men in the armoured car were killed by that blast on August 13, 1944, and the unknown remains from that attack were buried in a temporary U.S. cemetery in Gorron, France.

A 1945 review, however, found his uncle had been buried with German clothing. The remains were transferred to German WWII ossuary Mont de Huisnes in France.

Mr. Gordon thinks his uncle, burdened by the heavy wool uniform in the hot and damp French summer weather, might have scavenged some clothes left behind by the retreating German army. To this day, however, he has no idea how his uncle’s wallet made it home to his family.

Their search eventually led the two men to the Volksbund, Germany’s War Graves Commission, where they sought permission last spring to do DNA testing on the ‘X-3′ remains in the Mont de Huisnes ossuary. After going through the necessary procedures with the French government, their wish was granted.

It turned out, Mr. Gordon’s uncle was buried about 15 kilometres away from the Saint-James site he had originally visited.

The forensic team — the very same that works on crime scenes across France — took tooth and bone samples for DNA study in Marseille. On Friday, they found a large piece of metal driven into the socket of one of the femurs — a strong hint that the death was ugly and painful.

The results, to be analyzed by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, won’t likely be ready for three or so months, Mr. Gordon said. Even so, they will just be a “confirmation” that the remains belong to his uncle.

“When I started this in 2000, I thought there was a body at Saint-James, then I thought we didn’t have anything and now we’ve moved to the point where I think we’re 99% sure,” he said. “But I want to see the final results — I want to see the DNA, I want it confirmed, and then we have to talk about moving the body home.”

Tuesday 17 September 2013



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