Christie Laws and her father, William Edwin 'Eddie' Harris, hold a picture of Pfc. Cecil Harris, who was killed during Operation Nordwind in World War II. Cecil Harris' remains were recovered in September of 2013 outside of Dambach, France, after they had been missing for more than 69 years. (Max Hrenda/Johnson City Press via The Associated P)
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MOUNTAIN CITY, TENN. — William Edwin "Eddie" Harris doesn't remember meeting his father, but the two spent time together in November 1944 when Pfc. Cecil Harris was granted leave to visit his wife and young son.
Almost two months later, Cecil Harris was killed in action during Operation Nordwind, the last German offensive along the Western European front during World War II. His body was not recovered until more than 68 years later.
Nearly 70 years after Cecil Harris' death, in mid-May, William Harris received confirmation from the U.S. military that his father's remains had been found in a shallow grave north of Dambach, France.
"I was thrilled about it," Harris said. "It's closure. Now I know he's coming home."
Even though Harris never knew his father, apart from their encounter in 1944, Cecil Harris was his inspiration. In 1967, Harris enlisted in the Army — just like his father — and, during his 22 years of service, served in the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars.
Harris said his mother and relatives told him about his father and about how he enjoyed things like farming and hunting and a horse he owned named Strollin' Jim. The Harris family also learned some of the circumstances surrounding Cecil Harris' disappearance. William Harris' daughter, Christie Laws, said that a journal written by one of her grandfather's fellow soldiers indicated that Cecil had gone missing after a battle with German soldiers north of Dambach.
"They were under fire, and Cecil wasn't with them," Laws said. "They didn't get to go back because of a snowstorm."
While the family had done their research, Harris said he didn't think they would ever know what happened to his father's body.
"I never did think I'd find out," he said. "I had just given up on the thought of that after the years."
Then, in September 2013, he was contacted by a relative who said a man had been calling and trying to talk to him to tell him his father's remains had been found.
"I really could not comprehend it," he said. "I thought someone was fooling me when that guy got in touch with me."
The guy was David Kerr, a resident of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and a historian and genealogist specializing in the Thunderbirds 45th Infantry Division, to which Cecil Harris belonged. Kerr created two online groups — one on Yahoo! and another on Facebook — dedicated to the 45th Infantry, and, as a result, became acquainted with people across the globe.
According to Kerr, Cecil Harris' remains were found by Vito DeLuca, who was hiking in the woods north of Dambach in August 2013. DeLuca stopped, Kerr said, when he saw two markings — which appeared to be a capital "H'' and a cross — that looked to be etched onto a large piece of rock. When she saw a picture of what DeLuca saw on the rock, Laws said it appeared to her that one of his fellow soldiers had made a grave for her grandfather.
"You can see the letter 'H' — presumably for Harris — and then the cross," Laws said.
When DeLuca saw those markings, Kerr said, he may have had a similar suspicion.
"He noticed markings on the stone, which is actually beside a popular hiking trail above Dambach, and he was curious," Kerr said. "So he partially excavated below the stone, where he found items indicating a soldier from the war."
Kerr said DeLuca discovered buttons and an ammunition belt during his excavation. Upon finding those items, Kerr said, DeLuca contacted two friends — who were also acquainted, via the Internet, with Kerr — who then contacted the superintendent of a nearby German military cemetery. The superintendent then went to the site, Kerr said, where he opened the grave and discovered human remains.
Less than half of a full skeleton was found inside the grave, and most of those bones were from the body's right side.
After notifying French authorities, the U.S. military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command was notified, and the exhumation was completed. During that exhumation, however, they were able to locate a dog tag that bore Cecil Harris' name. Using the Internet, Kerr said, he managed to track down Harris in Mountain City.
"It was somewhat scary doing that," Kerr said.
Though Harris said he was initially skeptical of Kerr's intentions, he became less suspicious when the military became involved in the examination.
"Then, (the military) got to checking it, and we found out it was the truth," he said.
Harris and his aunt submitted DNA samples to the military to corroborate the growing suspicion that his father had been found. In mid-May, Harris said, an officer from Fort Knox, Kentucky, called to let him know that the tests confirmed it was his father.
After learning that his father had been found, Harris said, he called Kerr to share the good news.
"I called David and told him they had found him and confirmed it was his remains, and he was tickled to death," he said.
Kerr said that, in addition to being "tickled," he and his friends were pleased to help a family find a long-lost soldier.
"We were all humbled by this knowing that we had or they had discovered the possible remains of an American soldier who was missing for almost 70 years," Kerr said. "We were all honored that we could play some small, small role in bringing Cecil Harris home."
For Laws, the discovery of her grandfather was more bittersweet. Though Laws said she was happy that her grandfather was recovered, she said it also served as a painful reminder that they will never know Cecil Harris.
"It breaks my heart because he didn't get to know him, (and) we didn't get to know him," Laws said. "He's 70 years old, and just now getting information about his dad.
"I just wish we all could have gotten to know him."
Harris plans on burying his father at Arlington National Cemetery.