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College's DNA lab may help bring WWII soldier home

Dec. 26, 2013 - 01:29PM   |  
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MADISON, WIS. — The University of Wisconsin’s DNA lab may help bring the final member of a World War II unit home.

Pfc. Lawrence Gordon, 28, from Canada, was a member of the U.S. Army’s 32nd Armored Regiment when the armored car he was riding in exploded during fighting in Normandy, France on Aug. 13, 1944. The explosion also killed Pvt. James Bowman.

Staff Sgt. David Henry of Viroqua was wounded during the Normandy campaign but he made it home.

“The Army buddies meant a great deal. I think some of his best friends in the service were his best friends after the war,” said Henry’s grandson, Jed Henry, told WISC-TV. “They were closer than family and so Pfc. Gordon being missing to me was almost like a family member being missing.”

Bowman was identified from fingerprints. Gordon was never identified and was classified as one of the more than 78,000 American servicemen and women missing in action.

After his grandfather died, Jed Henry started searching for Gordon’s records. He learned that Gordon was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, and was working in Wyoming when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Henry confirmed that Gordon had been killed in the explosion through a survivor’s statements. He found 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. By using the death date and the location he narrowed the search.

He also knew Bowman had been buried in a cemetery in Gorron, France. Henry assumed their bodies would have been taken to the same cemetery because they died together.

He soon focused on remains identified as “X-3.”

“The problem is X-3 was determined to be German later and is now buried in a German cemetery in France,” Henry said.

Henry went to Washington to speak to the German and French embassies and had his research translated for the embassy staff.

He knew to prove Gordon’s identity he would need DNA testing.

Henry explained the story to Josh Hyman, director of UW’s DNA Sequencing Facility, whose uncle was shot down over Germany during World War II and for a time, was missing in action behind enemy lines.

“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. DNA samples were taken and Gordon’s dental records were compared with the remains. Hyman believes the dental records are a match.

The DNA samples are being compared with Gordon’s relatives. The French government is conducting the first round of tests. The University of Wisconsin will receive the samples afterward to complete their tests.

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