MILWAUKEE — Mistaken for a German soldier and buried with the enemy at the end of World War II, a U.S. soldier may finally be coming home thanks in large part to the efforts of a Wisconsin filmmaker - and despite foot-dragging by U.S. officials.
Science appears to have proved beyond a 99 percent likelihood what a team of civilian researchers led by documentarian Jed Henry strongly suspected after nearly two years of digging through decades-old military records regarding U.S. Army PFC Lawrence S. Gordon.
When the U.S. government dismissed the civilian research as inconclusive and refused to do DNA testing, Henry took it to the German War Graves Commission and the French government. They jointly granted permission for DNA to be extracted from the skeletal remains of unknown soldier X-356 in an above-ground German crypt in France last September. The French even agreed to cover the cost.
The mitochondrial DNA in a molar from X-356 - analyzed by the National Forensic Science Institute in France - is a match to Gordon's surviving nephews, according to a letter in French from the official in France in charge of the investigation. Henry released a translation of the letter on Monday to officials in the U.S. government whose job is to identify remains of unknown soldiers.
According to a University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist who consulted with the French investigators, the mitochondrial profile from this tooth is present in less than one-half percent of the population. In other words, it's not definitive evidence, but researchers argue that - coupled with all the other evidence - it's enough.
"This is a tooth from the upper jaw," said Josh Hyman, director of the DNA Sequencing Facility at UW-Madison's Biotechnology Center. "That, to me, is the human being. The mitochondrial profile matches perfectly."
Henry has asked the UW-Madison lab and a scientist on the East Coast who used to head the Armed Forces Identification Laboratory to do an independent analysis once the French share the bone powder that contains the DNA. A forensic odontologist (expert on teeth) and an anthropologist in Madison also hope to examine the rest of the remains if and when they are released.
The DNA analysis by the French crime lab appears to support the civilian researchers' conclusion that the U.S. mistakenly turned over Gordon's body to the Germans. In 1961, his skeletal remains were placed in an above-ground crypt in Normandy with 12,000 German soldiers who died in World War II. The civilian researchers are now consulting with French and German authorities about when the remains of X-356 could be released to the Gordon family.
Gordon may have been mistaken for a German because he scavenged German clothing, possibly an undershirt or trousers, and was wearing it under his American uniform the day he died. Perhaps it was in better condition than his own, or it was cooler beneath his U.S. Army-issued woolen uniform. It's also possible the Germans discovered his body first and covered him out of respect.
"It is so hard to know what happened," Henry said. "That's why the DNA is so important."
PFC Gordon's descendants - and his namesake nephew in particular - are ready to close the hole in their family history, and bring the soldier's remains home.
Lawrence R. Gordon was certain the remains were his uncle's even before the French completed their DNA analysis.
The lawyer from Medicine Hat, Alberta, was at the German ossuary in Normandy with Henry when a forensic investigator removed the remains from burial container X-356 and compared the lower jaw to his uncle's enlistment dental records. The jaw and the records were consistent: The wisdom teeth were gone, and the third tooth on the right side of the lower jaw was missing.
Henry also superimposed a picture of the skull of X-356 on top of a picture of PFC Gordon smiling, and the teeth appeared to match up almost perfectly.
"To me, this is just another step that confirms to the French and the Germans - everyone but the U.S. Army and accounting community - that this is my Uncle Lawrence," Gordon said last week.
In fact, the Gordon family is so disappointed and frustrated with the U.S. government, they would be happy if the French and Germans escorted the body home, even if the U.S. declines to accept the DNA analysis as conclusive evidence the remains are Gordon.
"I believe all it's going to take is for me to sign a receipt to have his remains transferred legally to me as next of kin," Lawrence R. Gordon said. "If I were an American taxpayer, I would be upset with the amount of money being spent on the accounting community (to identify unknown soldier remains) and the lack of results they have to show for it. They're supposed to be honoring these soldiers, and they say they don't leave anyone behind. They don't do anything to bring them home, either."
The Gordon case could be a bellwether case for how civilian researchers can expedite the identification of WWII soldier remains - a politically charged process that has been painstakingly slow, costly for the U.S. government and is now the subject of a top-level shake-up.
Despite receiving more than $500 million in appropriations since 2008, U.S. government agencies have only accounted for, on average, about 70 missing soldiers each year from past wars. That equates to more than $1 million per identification.
Henry and Gordon's nephew say DNA labs such as the one at UW-Madison could be useful to the U.S. government's identification efforts of unknown soldiers. They expect their expenses, including the DNA analysis in Madison, to total about $25,000.
They aren't the only ones pushing for changes in the missing soldier recovery process. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel last week ordered the Pentagon to come up with a plan within 30 days to maximize identification of soldier remains and improve transparency for families. That comes in the wake of numerous reports of misconduct and poor management practices.
Gordon's nephew said German authorities have been significantly more helpful than the U.S. government.
After learning last week about the positive results of the DNA analysis, Dirk H. Backen, brigadier general of the German Defense Attache, wrote a letter to Lawrence R. Gordon:
"Eventually, justice has won. My congratulations for showing such honorable commitment, patriotism, faith and courage to walk that long path for your uncle," Bracken wrote. "He will come home and that is what counts. He fell in a battle against my countrymen, but he did this under a just cause: To liberate Europe from fascism and to restore peace, freedom and humanity. His sacrifice was not in vain."
Earlier this month, Gordon's nephew wrote to a U.S military case manager for World War II soldier recovery efforts, telling him the DNA results were forthcoming, and asking whether the U.S. accounting community would accept them.
"Unfortunately, there are no simple answers to your question," responded Dean Hesse, case manager of the WWII Past Conflict Repatriations Branch at Fort Knox in Kentucky. "The Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) will certainly take into account information provided by an accredited laboratory such as INPS in France or the University of Wisconsin in making their determination.
"However, the determination of identification generally includes other factors in addition to DNA analysis. Until the CIL is able to review all available evidence, there is no way for them to complete an identification. We ask that you provide any information from these labs once it is available to you."
PFC Gordon was the only one of 44 soldiers in the Reconnaissance Company of the 32nd Armored Regiment, 3rd Armored Division who died during WWII but never got the honor of a gravestone with his name on it.
His nephews plan to bring him home to his birthplace in Saskatchewan, Canada, and bury him on the 70th anniversary of his death in a cemetery on a hillside overlooking the picturesque town near where he grew up. His grave will have a military cross specially made to match the ones in the Brittany American cemetery near St. James, Normandy.
The cross will say: PFC Lawrence S Gordon, Missing In Action Until 2013.
Gordon was a Canadian, but both of his parents were U.S. citizens. He enlisted in the U.S. Army while working on a ranch in Wyoming.
On Aug. 13, 1944, Gordon was believed to be commanding an M8 armored vehicle when it was struck by a German anti-tank shell. The only survivor of the blast was the radio operator, a replacement soldier who did not know the names of the others in the vehicle.
Henry's research strongly suggested Gordon's body initially was labeled as Unknown U.S. soldier X-3 and buried near another Unknown U.S. soldier, X-2, in the American section of a temporary cemetery in Normandy.
X-3's teeth were charted, but no fingerprints were taken - presumably because of the condition of the body. X-2 was fingerprinted, which allowed him to later be identified as U.S. Army Pvt. James Andrew Bowman, believed to have been the gunner beside Gordon.
Because X-3 could not be fingerprinted, the body was exhumed several months later to look for identification clues. A subsequent report said X-3 was "completely clothed in German equipment" and that "facts seem to indicate conclusively that deceased is German and not American."
Ironically, a German raincoat was also found with Bowman's remains, but because he could be fingerprinted, no one questioned which side he was on.
The U.S. turned X-3 over to the Germans, who reburied him as X-356 in the German section of the temporary military cemetery. His remains were later transferred to the German WWII ossuary Mont de Huisnes in France.
Gordon's family was led to believe he was buried in an American cemetery in France.
Jed Henry - grandson of another member of Gordon's Reconnaissance Company - learned in 2011 that Gordon was the only man in the company never given a proper burial. At the time, Henry was researching the Reconnaissance Company for a documentary about his grandfather, Staff Sgt. David L. Henry of Viroqua, Wis.
Henry decided to find Gordon, and make a documentary about that search.
Lawrence R. Gordon first traveled to France in 2000. He wanted to fulfill a promise he had made to his father to visit his Uncle Lawrence's grave. But instead, he found his uncle's name on the wall of the missing at Brittany American Cemetery near St. James, Normandy.
On Aug. 13 - the 70th anniversary of PFC Gordon's death - his namesake nephew hopes to finally honor the commitment he made to his father. He is planning to pay his respects at his uncle's newly dug grave.