70 years after his death, soldier's remains will come home; Havre takes part in tribute
UPDATE: A group of about 40-50 Canadian Patriot Guards will be accompanying Pfc. Gordon's remains from the Emporium at roughly 2 p.m. They will go over the viaduct and to to Wild Horse.
Lawrence R. Gordon, a Medicine Hat, Alberta, lawyer, was sure he would never be able to fulfill his promise he made to his late father.
His father asked him to go to France and visit the grave of Lawrence R. Gordon's uncle, U.S. Army Pfc. Lawrence S. Gordon, who was killed in combat Aug. 13, 1944, in France.
In 2000, Lawrence Gordon made the trip to France only to find out that his uncle was not buried, but had been listed as missing in action. There were few prospects his uncle's remains would be located, he was told.
Through a little luck and lots of hard work fighting the bureaucracy, Pfc. Gordon's remains were identified 14 years later. His body had been misidentified as being a German soldier.
He will be buried with his family in his hometown of Eastend, Saskatchewan, Wednesday, the 70th anniversary of his death.
Attorney Gordon will be able to give a proper goodbye to his namesake who died five years before he was born.
Havre will be at the center of a continent-wide effort to pay tribute to the private who gave his life for the cause of freedom.
Today, members of Montana's Patriot Guard, including Les Johnson of Kremlin, are escorting Gordon's remains from Billings in a motorcade to Havre, on to Wild Horse and then to Medicine Hat en route to Eastend.
Tuesday, about 50 members of Run for the Wall, a national motorcycle group of veterans who advocate for POWs and MIAs, will converge in Havre from around the nation.
Early Wednesday morning, they will form a motorcade in a procession. They will go east on U.S. Highway 2 to Harlem, then to Turner and on to Eastend, a town of about 300 people 33 miles north of the border, forthe burial.
Run for the Wall, which for 30 years has held a mass motorcyle trip from California to Washington, D.C., in support of POWs and MIAs, took up Pfc. Gordon's cause during this year's ride, talking to people about him in communities across the country.
At Eastend, they will form an honor guard that will carry American, Canadian and POW-MIA flags. The rest of the motorcyclists will ride at the end of the funeral procession.
Then they will return to Havre for a motorcycle parade through Havre - down Highway 2, 2nd Street and 5th Avenue, Williams said. He estimates the parade will begin around 6 p.m.
The parade will be a thank-you to the Havre community for its welcoming attitude and a celebration that Pfc. Gordon has at long last returned home, said Les Williams, a retired Marine Corps colonel who is coordinating the event for Run for the Wall.
"Then, we'll go to the Duck Inn for dinner and raise a glass of champagne in honor of Private Gordon," he said.
Williams said he hopes people will stop by Tuesday afternoon at the Great Northern Inn to talk to the motorcyclists, since they enjoy meeting as many people as they can.
"We'll be out in front of the Great Northern Inn, polishing our bikes," he said. "We'd love to meet people."
Hi-Line residents are welcome to join in an organizational session the group is having at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Great Northern Inn, he said. And they are welcome to cheer on the veterans as they take off to Eastend, but that will be at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday.
The trip home to Eastend
Pfc. Gordon's remains were brought to the University of Wisconsin for final verification.
Friday, his friends and family began a funeral procession to Medicine Hat and eventually Eastend.
Patriot Guard members will accompany the hearse throughout the trip, said Les Johnson of Kremlin, who will take part in the Havre part of the procession.
"We don't want him to be alone at any time," Williams said.
Along the way, the procession stopped near the ranch near Casper, Wyoming, where Pfc. Gordon worked as a ranch hand at the time of Pearl Harbor.
From there, the procession went to Billings. At 6 this morning, the group left a Billings funeral home and proceeded north to Fort Belknap, Harlem and Chinook.
At Chinook, the hearse is set to stop at around noon at the ranch of another uncle, Henry Gordon, who relocated to Blaine County when he married a Chinook woman.
"It will be the end of a 70-year closure for our family," Henry Gordon said.
It will then go to Havre, over the viaduct and on to Wild Horse.
They expect to be in Havre around 3 p.m. Attorney Gordon said this morning,
At Wild Horse, members of the Canadian version of the Patriot Guards will take over.
Pfc. Gordon's history
Although he grew up in Eastend, Pfc. Gordon held dual citizenship because his parents were born in the United States.
He worked in Wyoming at the time of Pearl Harbor and quickly made a decision to fight the Axis powers.
He decided to enlist in the U.S. Army because he felt it would be better equipped, said Jed Henry, a photojournalist who is planning a documentary about the effort to locate Pfc. Gordon's remains.
He eventually was shipped out to Europe.
When he was in France, the reconnaissance vehicle he was riding in was struck by German artillery.
A fellow soldier in the recon vehicle was killed, and his body was quickly identified. But for some reason, it was determined that Pfc. Gordon's remains were actually those of a German soldier.
Attorney Gordon speculated that might be because he was found with a German T-shirt. It was not unusual for soldiers in his unit to wear German clothes that had been seized when Americans captured German facilities, attorney Gordon said.
The remains were buried, but after the war, Americans turned the body over to the postwar German government, which buried the remains in France.
Pfc. Gordon was labeled as missing in action, though his family thought he was buried in France.
Attorney Gordon visited France in 2000 to comply with his father's request that he visit the grave. He was devastated to learn that he was labeled missing in action.
Discovering the truth
That might have been the end of the story, except that Jed Henry, a young photojournalist from Wisconsin, decided he wanted to visit France to find out what his grandfather had done during World War II.
"Grandpa never talked about it," he said. "So I figured out that I should go to France and find out."
On his last day in France, Henry learned from a young, local historian, Alexis Boban, that there was a member of Henry's grandfather's unit still listed as missing.
Henry knew nothing about this, and started to investigate.
Before long, he got in touch with attorney Gordon, who joined in the effort.
Babon and Henry poured through documents and talked to French and German authorities.
"We were rank amateurs," Henry said. "We were stumbling around."
But before long, they had the strong suspicion that the remains were classified as being those of the unidentified German soldier.
During this time, Henry and attorney Gordon became disenchanted with the American government.
American authorities didn't cooperate in the effort to find and verify the remains, he said.
"You could put the American government's cooperation in a thimble," attorney Gordon said.
Yet, the French and German governments were extremely cooperative and anxious to find the truth, they said.
"From the beginning, the Germans said they would do everything they could," attorney Gordon said.
"The government that killed him (Private Gordon) were doing all they could," said Williams. "And the country he was fighting for was doing nothing."
The German government conducted DNA tests and found that there was a 99.95 percent chance that the remains belonged to Pfc. Gordon.
Reluctantly, the United States government agreed, Henry said.
Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic were starting to report about the case.
"Had it not been for the media, they probably wouldn't have gone along," he said. "But they were getting pressure."
"I can guarantee that if he had been buried in an American cemetery in France instead of a German cemetery, nothing would have been done," he said.
But the German government's help make identification possible, he said.
Henry said there are about 10,000 MIA bodies in France.
Pfc. Lawrence Gordon
"If the American government put its mind to it, it would identify between 3,000 and 4,000 of the remains with little trouble," Henry said.
Attorney Gordon estimates that the entire process of identifying the remains took a lot of work but cost only about $25,000.
The U.S. government spends about $1 million per identified body, he said. And the government process is far less effective.
"If I were an American taxpayer, I would be fed up," he said.
But, though he holds the American government in contempt, he said the Americans who have worked on the project have been wonderful.
From the Patriot Warriors to the Run for the Wall people to the experts at the University of Wisconsin, "they have been wonderful," he said.