For most of the past 68 years, the spot was nothing more than a resting place for hikers.
Tucked beneath a towering rock formation on a ridge in Eastern France, it was nothing more than saplings and shade, a moment of peace. No one imagined the history beneath them, the unanswered questions an ocean away.
Then, on a sweltering day last August a French hiker came upon the spot and got curious. He noticed something white in the ground. Above him, there were etchings in the stone, an ‘H’ and a scratchy cross.
Sinking his fingers into the sandy soil, he met an American father, a soldier, a boy from Tennessee who wanted most of all to come home.
The winter of 1944 in Europe was one of the worst on record.
U.S. Army Pvt. First Class Cecil E. Harris had been overseas with the “Thunderbirds” 45th Infantry Division since summer, and as December gave way to the New Year, American troops flowed into a small valley near the French town of Dambach near the German border.
The Germans had just been pushed out of France along the border between Metz and Strasbourg, but had mounted a counterattack that history would name the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans also were launching another counterattack, Operation Northwind, intended to take back Strasbourg and northern Alsace.
Dambach lies among several high ridges extending down from the Vosges Mountains. One of them was home to three distinctive chimneylike rock formations that wouldn’t be out of place in a Tennessee landscape.
Harris — in Company D — and the 45th Infantry had dug into those hills when the Germans launched their attack, according to an account given in a Veterans Day 2013 speech at Dambach by U.S. Consulate General to Strasbourg Evan G. Reade.
The French who saw the action unfold said the opposing forces repeatedly battled, lost and regained that ridgetop.
Among the back and forth, many were lost, including Harris, who was just 19. The day was Jan. 2, 1945. His infant son waited at home for his father’s return.
Decades later, now a 70-year-old man, that son was still waiting. But the discovery in the French woods last summer has unearthed answers to buried questions.
And Cecil Harris is finally coming home.
“I’m tickled to get my dad home and get him buried with the honor and respect he deserves,” said Eddie Harris, a retired U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars who has his father’s eyes.
The remains are now at Pearl Harbor, on American soil, awaiting a date for burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
After Frenchman Vito DeLuca found Harris’ bones, he closed the hole and contacted his friend Eric Schell, a World War II history buff.
Schell, DeLuca and two other friends returned to see whether DeLuca had actually found a lost soldier. They immediately suspected that the remains could be those of a German or American soldier, so they closed the hole again and experts were notified, said Pierre Lindauer, a local resident and now friend of the Harris family.
A couple of days later, officials began excavating and discovered the dog tags of U.S. soldier, “Harris, Cecil E,” buttons, uniform insignia, unspent ammunition and parts of a human skeleton.
The dog tag matches a name that appears on the Wall of the Missing at the American Cemetery at Epinal in the Vosges Mountains. An investigation was triggered and efforts undertaken to find the soldier’s family.
Half a world away, Eddie Harris, who had grown up in Grundy County, had long ago lost hope of finding his father. Then he got a call from relatives who said they had been notified that his father’s remains had been found.
His daughter, Christie Laws, of Mountain City, said she became consumed with the discovery of her grandfather’s remains as details started to trickle across the Atlantic from France. She looked through some of the family’s old letters from World War II, writings that hadn’t been examined in years because they contained the pain of the mystery of a young father who was missing in action and presumed dead.
One of Cecil Harris’ comrades wrote the family in 1949 to tell his memories of his buddy’s last moments. The first name, “Aaron,” is legible but the last name is hard to read on the handwritten letter’s signature.
“I was with him when he passed on,” Aaron wrote. “We were sent to the relief of a division that was having a bad time of it. It was night and in the vicinity of Dambach.
“We passed through this division and into the surrounding hills. On reaching the summit we made contact with the enemy forces. In an exchange of rifle fire, Cecil was hit. Death was immediate. I reached him in a fraction of a second, a medic was with me, but he had already passed on,” he wrote.
Aaron’s letter doesn’t say what happened afterward, but Eddie Harris believes he can put together what transpired through his own military experience and information from his new-found friends in France.
Eddie Harris said he always heard his father was an ammunition carrier, and that seems to be borne out by the ammo found with his father’s remains. Military records indicate Harris’ unit had to pull back after he was killed and were unable to return because the Germans occupied the ridgetop and icy weather had moved in.
“They were overrun,” Eddie Harris said recently while visiting his cousin on Suck Creek Mountain. “The Germans buried him.”
He said he’s thankful for the attention they paid by marking the sandstone rock with an “H” and the small cross that caught DeLuca’s eye.
For years, letters were all the family had left.
Harris joined the military in January 1944 and wrote his family during the months of war, describing basic training in Florida, falling sick, a country boy already out of his element.
He wrote that he missed his “little man” and his “big man,” both references to the tiny boy he got to see only once while on leave before heading to Europe, when his son was an infant.
“I would give anything to see him,” he wrote in July 1944 as he made his way across the Atlantic to combat and fate.
“I hope the next time I come home, it will be to stay,” he wrote.
As he wound his way through September and October, he wrote about playing cards with his mates and “arguing about what we were going to do when this war is over. Ha Ha…”
On Nov. 1, 1944, he complained that “it seems like four years since I’ve been home besides four months.”
In many of the letters, the young soldier wrote responses to letters he was likely holding in his hands, so the context is lost, but his love for his family and his happy-go-lucky attitude were clear. He wrote of hunting and farming, the birth of a new calf.
In the last correspondence on Nov. 21, he imagined his mother and sisters “sitting by the fire reading the paper and Janice and Polly studying their lessons for tomorrow.”
He made the ultimate sacrifice six weeks later.
A letter from his mother, still not knowing the loss, was postmarked Jan. 10. In it, she asked whether he got his Christmas packages.
“Hope this finds Mama’s Boy well,” Mary Harris wrote to her son. “Son the cows are doing fine and Red is fat as a bear.
“Be a good boy and hurry home.”
There are 12,000 Americans still missing in action in the European and Mediterranean theaters of action from World War II, Reade told those attending Veterans Day services in France in 2013. The U.S. military began an initiative to recover its dead following the war.
The effort continued through the decades to reclaim remains and return them home. In 2003, a database was developed of World War II service members whose remains were never recovered or identified, and a field investigation mission that included historians and analysts followed in 2010.
For Cecil Harris, his liberation from mystery began on a far more personal level, with a curious Frenchman.
Laws and her father are at a loss to describe the appreciation they feel toward their friends in France and the U.S. military officials who oversaw the return of Cecil Harris’ remains. They’re also touched by the efforts of their French friends and the play the discovery received in the media there.
Cecil Harris’ legacy of sacrifice was not lost on the son who never knew him. Eddie Harris followed in those footsteps and joined the military.
“I figured that if he could give his life for his country, so could I,” Harris said.
But he can’t help imagining what it would have been like if his father had survived the war.
“I wonder what we’d have done all these years,” Harris said, his speech stalling. “The way he loved to hunt and I love to hunt, I’m sure we’d have done a lot together.”
Since the discovery the family has talked more about what young Cecil Harris was like and speculate about the man he might have become.
“I feel like I know him a little better,” his son said.
And there’s closure. Comfort in knowing.
“It still hasn’t really sunk in,” Eddie Harris said as he looked at the framed photo of his father in his hands. “I guess when we have the memorial service, it’ll seem more real.
“For now, we’re just waiting.”