They were like family. Young men who went to war, they fought together, they spilled blood together, and some died together. When World War II ended most came home.
Pfc. Lawrence S. Gordon, a 28-year-old Canadian enlistee, did not.
Gordon, a member of the U.S. Army’s 32nd Armored Regiment was killed when the armored car he was riding in exploded during fighting in Normandy, France. The explosion also killed Pvt. James Bowman.
During the chaos of war Bowman was identified from fingerprints. Gordon was never identified and became classified as missing in action. He was one of more than 78,000 American servicemen and women listed as missing in action.
Gordon served in combat with Staff Sgt. David Henry of Viroqua.
Wounded during the Normandy campaign, Henry eventually came home to Wisconsin. Like many veterans, he rarely spoke of his experiences at war. The one thing that was clear though was the closeness he felt for the men he fought with.
“The Army buddies meant a great deal. I think some of his best friends in the service were his best friends after the war,” Jed Henry, the grandson of David Henry, said. “They were closer than family and so Pfc. Gordon being missing to me was almost like a family member being missing.”
That is why, after his grandfather died Jed Henry started searching through records trying to find Gordon. He learned that Gordon was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, and was working in Wyoming when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Gordon enlisted in the U.S. Army.
Henry was able to confirm that Gordon had indeed been killed in the explosion through statements made by someone in the vehicle who had survived. Henry was also able to learn the date when Gordon and Bowman died and the location where it happened. Records also told Henry where Bowman had been buried, but there was no record of what had become of Gordon.
“To find someone who has been missing for 70 years isn’t easy,” Henry said.
The military listed unidentified remains with an X designation. Henry started pouring through those X files trying to determine which one could possibly be Gordon. By using the date of death, Aug. 13, 1944, and the location he was able to narrow the search.
He also knew that Bowman had been buried in a cemetery in Gorron, France. Henry assumed that because Bowman and Gordon had died together their bodies would likely have been taken to the same cemetery.
By matching the date and location Henry focused in on the remains identified as “X-3.” But there was one very big problem.
“The problem is X-3 was determined to be German later and is now buried in a German cemetery in France,” Henry said.
To move his search forward Henry would need to convince the German and French governments that X-3 was Gordon and not a German soldier. Henry made trips to Washington to speak directly with individuals at the German and French embassies. He even had his research translated into German and French for the embassy staff. Henry also knew that to finally prove Gordon was X-3 would require DNA testing.
When he walked into the University of Wisconsin’s Biotechnology Center the search for Gordon took a very positive turn. The first person he met was Josh Hyman, director of the DNA Sequencing Facility.
“I walked out and there’s Jed and he said, 'You know, I want to talk to somebody about DNA,' and I said, 'You’ve come to the right place and you’re talking to the right person,'” Hyman said.
Henry explained the story of Gordon and the story struck close to home for Hyman, whose uncle was shot down over Germany during World War II and for a time, was missing in action behind enemy lines.
It made Hyman’s decision to help find Gordon an easy one to make.
“It starts out as, it is the right thing to do and it ends up being, it is the only thing you can possibly do,” Hyman said.
On Sept. 13, Henry and Hyman traveled to France and were present as French officials opened the burial vault containing the remains of X-3. Samples were taken to conduct DNA tests and dental records of Gordon were compared with the remains. Hyman believes the dental records to be a match.
“I think this is Pfc. Gordon,” Hyman said.
The DNA samples are currently being compared with those of Gordon’s relatives. The French government is conducting the first round of tests. The DNA lab at the University of Wisconsin will receive the samples once the French government completes their tests.
The UW has state-of-the-art testing equipment and Hyman is confident the lab will be able to finally complete the search for Gordon.