VIROQUA, Wis. — A U.S. soldier mistakenly buried with the enemy at the close of World War II begins the final leg of his unlikely journey home Friday in a small Wisconsin town he probably never heard of, but that produced a vital link to finding and identifying his remains.
A horse-drawn funeral hearse is scheduled to deliver the remains of Pfc. Lawrence S. Gordon to a VFW Post at 1:20 p.m., at the close of a noon hour public reception, also at the post. The reception and ensuing funeral procession through town are expected to draw many Viroqua area residents wishing to pay their respects to a soldier whose family for decades did not know what happened to him after he died in the war.
The horse-drawn funeral hearse, a bagpiper, Wisconsin National Guard members and Wisconsin Patriot riders will travel down Main Street around 1:30 p.m. to a waiting transport vehicle at the fairgrounds, which will take Gordon about 1,600 miles back to Eastend, Saskatchewan, Canada, where he was born and raised before moving to Wyoming to work on a ranch. Gordon enlisted in the U.S. Army while in Wyoming.
The WWII soldier is to be buried Wednesday in his Canadian hometown on the 70th anniversary of his death.
Viroqua's connection to Gordon is that it produced another World War II soldier, Staff Sgt. David L. Henry, who served in the same reconnaissance company as Gordon.
Staff Sgt. Henry's grandson, Middleton filmmaker Jed Henry, was working on a documentary about his grandfather's military service when he learned about Gordon — the only soldier in the reconnaissance company not accounted for after the war. The young filmmaker set out in November 2011 to find Gordon and bring him home with the help of a team of civilian researchers and a well-placed former official of the military accounting community.
A trail of decades-old military records led them to an above-ground crypt at the German ossuary Mont de Huisnes in Normandy, where Gordon had been interred with almost 12,000 World War II German soldiers.
While piecing together the military paper trail, Henry also found Gordon's nephew and namesake, Lawrence R. Gordon, a lawyer in Medicine Hat, Alberta, who became heavily involved in the search and is accompanying his uncle home to Canada.
Lawrence R. Gordon had promised his father years earlier that he would find and visit his uncle's grave in France. But when he got to France, he instead found his uncle's name on the wall of the missing at Brittany American Cemetery near St. James, Normandy.
After hearing evidence collected by Henry and others, the German War Graves Commission and the French government granted permission late last year for DNA to be extracted from the remains of German Unknown X-356 at the German ossuary in France and compared to DNA in saliva from Gordon's eight nephews.
The DNA Sequencing Facility at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Biotechnology Center analyzed the DNA, along with a private lab on the east coast, and concluded it belonged to Gordon. Forensic scientists in Madison in June examined the skeletal remains of the soldier for further forensic evidence when Gordon was brought back by his family from the German ossuary in France to U.S soil.
The identification of Gordon through efforts of civilian researchers and DNA sequencing facilities at UW-Madison and in Virginia could be a template for how civilians and DNA analysis can expedite the identification of WWII soldier remains — a politically charged process that has been painstakingly slow and costly for the U.S. government.
It also provides closure to a family that spend decades in the dark.
Gordon's mother had written several times to the War Department and Red Cross, asking for the location of her son's grave and how he died. She never got a solid answer, believed the Army had lost her son's body, and was angry about it until the day she died, according to family members.
Unbenownst to the family, Gordon had been mistakenly buried in a German cemetery, though his largely intact, bloodstained wallet containing no identification somehow made it home to Canada.