French lab identifies US soldier's remains after JPAC refuses to investigate
By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 24, 2014
France’s national crime laboratory has positively identified the remains of an U.S. Army soldier missing from World War II after the U.S. Defense Department’s own accounting agency refused to exhume the body and conduct a DNA test.
Army Pvt. 1st Class Lawrence Gordon’s remains were identified Feb. 13, after researchers were able to match mitochondrial DNA to Gordon’s nephews, his family confirmed Monday.
According to military records, Gordon has been missing since Aug. 13, 1944, when he was killed in an M8 armored car that was struck by a German anti-tank shell near Carrouges, France. His remains were first interred in an American cemetery as “unknown,” despite the fact that his bloody wallet was sent home to his family and the man killed next to him was identified.
The remains were later exhumed and reburied in a German cemetery.
In early 2013, officials at the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command refused to exhume and test the remains, citing Defense Department policy. For years, they also refused to aid in the research effort.
The French and German governments, however, determined there was enough evidence to proceed with testing of their own.
Thanks to their efforts, Gordon’s remains will now be buried next to his father and brothers in Saskatchewan, Canada, on the 70th anniversary of his death, according to a statement given Monday to Stars and Stripes by the multi-national research team responsible for making the case to the French and German governments.
Because the Defense Department stonewalled the identification process, it is unlikely that Gordon will receive American military honors, his nephew and namesake, Lawrence Gordon, said Monday. To receive the honors and be removed from the list of the unaccounted for, the results must be verified by the Defense Department.
Because of the time-zone differences, JPAC officials could not be reached for comment by press time.
Less than a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Gordon left his job on a Wyoming ranch to join the war effort. A Canadian citizen, he joined the 3rd Armored Division and fought across Normandy, surviving the battle at St. Lo before he was killed.
On Aug. 13, 1944, Gordon, Pvt. James Bowman, Tech 5 Anthony Abato, and Pvt. Charles Kurtz were ordered to chase down a German motorcyclist that had passed them in their M8 armored car. While in pursuit, the vehicle was struck in the gas tank by a German 88 mm shell. Gordon and Bowman never made it out of the inferno. Kurtz and Abato were able to escape with serious burns, but Abato died two days later.
Records show that two sets of remains from the wreckage were placed in unknown status, and buried Aug. 15, 1944, in the Gorron American Military Cemetery by the 603rd Graves Registration unit.
“We presume identification was difficult because the remains were presumably blown apart and probably charred beyond recognition,” said filmmaker Jed Henry, who pursued evidence that eventually led Gordon’s identification.
But in the spring of 1945, Bowman was identified by fingerprints taken before the burial. Both set of remains were exhumed and processed.
Because German clothing or equipment was found with the one set of remains, it was determined to be that of a German solder. Apparently, nobody gave a second thought to the fact that Bowman remains also had been found with a German raincoat.
Gordon’s mother, Ella, was sent a Purple Heart, but few answers. She believed the government had lost her son’s body.
That second set of remains of Gorron X-3, or German X-356, sat in one German cemetery or another for 69 years.
The quest to bring Gordon home began in 2011 while Henry began working on a documentary about his grandfather, Staff Sgt. David Henry.
Henry, who had fought alongside Gordon in the 199-member Reconnaissance Company, died in 1983.
Henry went to France to retrace his grandfather’s steps when he learned that there was one man of the 44 from the company who died during the war that never came home. He formed the core of his research team right then with the help of a French historian who had alerted him to Gordon. He then enlisted 7th Armored historian Wesley Johnston and researcher Patrick Gorman.
As months passed, Henry sought the help of DNA experts and forensic dentists who said that the dental chart for the unknown remains matched Gordon’s on file. He also linked up with Gordon’s nephew, Lawrence, who lives in Alberta, Canada.
However, it wasn’t enough for JPAC to test the remains, Henry was told at the time.
“At the current time, this case does not meet the criteria set by DoD Policy for disinterment; however, if the family unilaterally has the remains exhumed, the CIL will analyze and conduct forensic testing on the remains if the family wishes,” wrote Johnie Webb, JPAC’s deputy to the commander for external relations and legislative affairs, in an email to Henry.
Thankfully for the Gordon family, there were a number of current and former officials in the accounting community willing to lend a hand even if JPAC was not interested. In the end, they were able to convince the French and the German to exhume and test the remains.
Now that the French lab has identified Gordon’s remains, the next step is to have the results verified at the University of Wisconsin before burial. Henry wants this done to leave no doubt and to show that JPAC isn’t the only organization capable of bringing a missing servicemember home.
“While finding PFC Gordon and getting all the different countries on board was not easy, it is important to note that this was accomplished by four volunteer researchers/historians in their spare time with the blessing and guidance of PFC Gordon’s primary next of kin and all expenses have been paid for exclusively by the Gordon family and our volunteer research team,” Henry said. “We estimate that the total cost of this endeavor from start to finish will cost less than $25,000. That means research, travel, DNA testing and all associated costs are about $25,000.”
Currently, JPAC averages more $1 million of annual budget per ID. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered an overhaul of the accounting agency last week.
JPAC’s decision to not pursue the case does not sit well with at least one member of the research team that has identified Gordon’s remains so that he may finally be taken home.
“It is truly sad that the greatest country in the world does not even remotely come close to living up to the rhetoric that it disseminates to the American public about leaving no soldier behind,” Henry told Stars and Stripes on Monday. “For someone who loves this country and what our military does for us, I am admittedly ashamed by our efforts and embarrassed that we do not live up to the commitment that we promise to our veterans and their families.”
Lawrence Gordon said they got lucky that his uncle’s remains were out of JPAC’s reach. That is the only reason they were successful.
“A grade one child has a greater moral compass,” he said of the American accounting agencies. “Thank God Uncle Lawrence was not in their system. He’ll be brought home and we’ll finally have some closure.”