MILWAUKEE—A year after using cutting-edge DNA analysis to identify the remains of an American soldier mistakenly buried with the enemy after World War II, the University of Wisconsin, Madison announced Wednesday it will put its expertise in history, archaeology and forensic and genetic analysis behind the U.S. government’s tedious efforts to identify and recover other missing service members.
The new UW MIA Recovery and Identification Project is thought to be the first of its kind launched by a university to help the Department of Defense, which spends about $2.5 million per service member identification, and makes an average of 74 identifications per year.
The search for Army Private First Class Lawrence S. Gordon, the American soldier mistakenly buried in a German cemetery, cost a team of civilian researchers about 1 percent of what the government spends, and required about two years of digging through decades-old military records, according to Middleton filmmaker Jed Henry, who led the civilian team and created a documentary about the effort.
Henry began the search for Gordon after finding out he was the only member of his grandfather’s Reconnaissance Company who died in battle but never was identified and given a proper burial. Recovering and identifying Gordon’s remains cost about $25,000 — mostly for travel, Henry said.
“We could probably identify another 3,000 to 4,000 unknowns for half of that — $12,500,” Henry said Wednesday, referring to the potential of the UW MIA Recovery and Identification Project.
Three labs, including UW-Madison’s Biotechnology Center, donated their expertise and services in the search for Gordon — a search that did not have the support of the U.S. government, but that French and German governments embraced.
The U.S. government isn’t saying whether it welcomes UW-Madison’s help.
“We don’t currently have a relationship with them,” Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Wednesday.
Morgan said the military accounting agency doesn’t have a process in place to enter into such relationships, but is working to develop one.
Members of Congress have called on the Department of Defense to seek assistance from experts at universities because identification efforts have been slow and costly.
The U.S. government spends about $190 million per year to identify missing service members. More than 83,000 service members from World War II to the present remain missing.
Experts say about 45,000 MIAs are recoverable.
Only a handful of universities in the country have all the components to recover and identify missing service members, according to Henry, who doggedly pushed the government to release military records to aid in the recovery of Gordon’s remains from a German war cemetery in Normandy, France.
UW-Madison’s new project “is a chance to re-establish, with supportive action, the government’s obligation to its missing servicemen, and a commitment to the families of those MIAs,” a former leader in the military accounting community wrote in a letter Wednesday to the acting director of the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
The former leader, Renee Richardson, was chief of the Resource Outreach Branch of the World War II Division of the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office. She informally assisted in the Gordon search after moving to a different government post.
Richardson was assigned to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office in 2010, when the government explored building civilian coalitions similar to the one Henry assembled and UW-Madison is building. That initiative was largely abandoned, but is resurfacing amid a recent reorganization of the military accounting community under pressure from Congress.
Richardson wrote in the letter Wednesday that she was personally disappointed to see the military accounting community’s response to the Gordon family, “and to this day I feel that the system prohibited my respected former colleagues from doing the right thing.”
Although the government “cannot make up for the maltreatment the Gordon family felt it received, (the military accounting community) can assure that in the future, no other World War II family has such a negative experience,” Richardson wrote.
“Now is the opportunity to review obsolete policies, establish new approaches, and work with a highly motivated and scientifically rigorous team that was part of the successful recovery of PFC Lawrence Gordon. Please do not let this chance slip away.”
Through its involvement with the Gordon case, UW-Madison developed research protocols that could be used in other work there.
UW-Madison’s primary goal in establishing the UW MIA Recovery and Identification Project will be to identify new technologies to enhance the recovery and identification process and to apply the technologies with protocols it creates, according to Charles Konsitzke, assistant director of the Biotechnology Center within the university’s DNA Sequencing Facility.
Graduate and undergraduate students will be part of the project, and will gain valuable research experience that helps the government and brings closure for families who lost loved ones in war, Charles Konsitzke, assistant director of the Biotechnology Center within the university’s DNA Sequencing Facility, told the Journal Sentinel.
The project, which will be based within UW-Madison’s Molecular Archaeology Group, needs financial assistance to get off the ground, Konsitzke said.
The project hopes to initially raise $50,000 to cover costs for recovery and identifications of remains of three U.S. soldiers whose plane went down in a cornfield in France during World War II, and possibly for recovery efforts at a second site in France. That amount also would allow researchers to investigate other possible sites for future digs.
“The campus has made a significant investment in this program to allow development of the needed infrastructure and expertise,” Konsitzke said. “This project is the perfect example of the UW’s commitment to the Wisconsin Idea, and this is such a great opportunity for us to honor these heroes and their families,” Konsitzke said.
The Missing In Action (MIA) Recovery and Identification Project (RIP) initially will focus on recovery and identification of World War II U.S. Forces in the European Theater.
PFC Gordon was a Canadian with American parents who decided to fight with the Americans. He was assigned to the Reconnaissance Company of the 32nd Armored Regiment, 3rd Armored Division, and died Aug. 13, 1944, less than two weeks before Paris was liberated.
Gordon was believed to be commanding an armored vehicle as part of an effort to prevent Germans from escaping through the Falaise Gap. His vehicle took a direct hit in the gas tank from a German 88mm gun, and caught fire instantly. Gordon — one of two men standing in the turret — never stood a chance.
Gordon’s bloodstained wallet — burned around the edges, but largely intact — was sent home to his family.
His mother wrote 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.
In 1961, Gordon’s skeletal remains were mistakenly turned over to the Germans and placed in an aboveground crypt in Normandy with 12,000 German soldiers who died in World War II.
Henry was working on a documentary about his grandfather when he learned about Gordon. Finding the soldier and bringing him home was “the right thing to do,” Henry said.
Science proved the U.S. government wrong after it dismissed the civilian research as inconclusive and refused to do DNA testing.
Henry made his case 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 aboveground German crypt in France in September 2013. 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 — was a match to Gordon’s surviving nephews. Two other labs, including the one at UW-Madison, confirmed the match.
Gordon was finally returned to his family and buried in his hometown in Canada last Aug. 13 — the 70th anniversary of his death.
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