This American G.I. Was Buried in His Enemy’s Grave
It took seven decades to discover Lawrence Gordon’s true identity
It is a case of mistaken identity that 69 years ago placed the body of a World War II American soldier in a grave for his German adversaries.
Yet, work by investigators in the United States and France within the last year led to the conclusion that the bones of a man once entombed in a French ossuary for German soldiers are actually the remains of Pvt. 1st Class Lawrence Gordon of the 7th Armored Division, pictured above. He was killed when a German 88-millimeter shell struck his armored vehicle.
Gordon’s true identity came to light after an investigation led by Jed Henry, a documentary filmmaker and grandson of Staff Sgt. David Henry, who served in the 7th Armored Division with Gordon during World War II. Jed Henry’s research convinced European authorities that a body designated “X-3” and buried in the German cemetery at Mont d’Huisnes, France, is actually Gordon.
According to a report in the Milwaukie Journal Sentinel, Gordon was born to American parents in Canada but moved to Wyoming where he worked on a ranch. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Gordon enlisted in the U.S. Army on Jan. 24, 1942. The Army assigned Gordon to a reconnaissance company of the 32nd Armored Regiment, 3rd Armored Division.
By 1944, the then 28-year-old Gordon was in France as part of the 7th Armored Division. According to an eyewitness from his unit, on Aug. 13, 1944, Gordon possibly commanded an armored vehicle as part of an effort to prevent Germans from escaping through the Falaise Gap.
However, his armored car took a direct hit on the gas tank, transforming the vehicle into an inferno. Gordon, a gunner sharing the turret with him, and another vehicle crewman were killed.
The convoluted odyssey of Gordon’s remains and the events that led to him declared missing in action by the War Department began shortly after his death.
The Army buried Gordon in a temporary grave as an unknown but then military investigators exhumed him in 1945 for additional examination. Although the investigators compared his remaining teeth to dental records there were no fingerprints taken from the remains, presumably because no fingerprints were available.
Eventually, mortuary officials ordered Gordon re-buried with German soldiers because one of the few clues investigators at the time had was the clothing he was wearing. According to a War Department report, the remains were “completely clothed in German equipment” including items bearing German manufacturer’s labels. At this point, he was designated a German unknown.
Why Gordon was wearing articles of German clothing is also unknown. Speculation includes the theory that he might have been wearing inner layers of German clothing because G.I.s often salvaged shirts and underwear from Wehrmacht sources if adequate clothing was unavailable.
His remains were placed in a crypt along with the bones of approximately 12,000 German soldiers.
Contemporary investigators involved with establishing Gordon’s true identity call the determination that he was a German soldier an honest mistake because of the circumstances and paucity of evidence. At the time, military investigators lacked the technology that allows examination of DNA evidence often used today to identify even skeletal remains of individuals.
Whatever the cause of his misidentification, the War Department did not identify a body it believed was Gordon’s. Therefore, he was listed as missing in action, prompting the mystery that left his family with unanswered questions for nearly 70 years.
In 2011, Jed Henry began developing a documentary film about his grandfather’s unit. The elder Henry told the filmmaker that Gordon never received a proper burial; the comments piqued his curiosity and led him on a search for the missing man.
Eventually, the filmmaker contacted both German and French authorities for help in locating the remains. Both were cooperative—the French in particular because their government still maintains immense respect for the American soldiers who helped liberate France during World War II—and Henry convinced French investigators to begin preliminary examination of the bones.
When the French investigation revealed that there was a high probability that the remains were actually Gordon rather than a German soldier, in 2013 Henry asked scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to perform a DNA analysis.
According to university scientists, less than half of one percent of people share a certain set of mitochondrial DNA markers that Gordon’s mother passed on to him and a sister—and which his sister in turn passed on to her children.
“The French worked on the teeth and bones, and the teeth gave them excellent matches for mitochondrial DNA,” said Joshua Hyman, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Biotechnology Center’s DNA Sequencing Facility and a member of the science team Henry drew together to help guide his investigation.
During that investigation, investigators removed mitochondrial DNA from the skeletal remains and compared it to the DNA found in the saliva of eight of Gordon’s nephews who volunteered samples.
“That makes us 99.5 percent certain this soldier is not somebody else,” Hyman said in a written statement. “But, given the slim chance somebody else with the same mitochondrial profile as Gordon’s nephews and nieces was in this place in France among the unidentified remains of this particular attack in 1944, you feel even more certain.”
In June, Gordon’s body arrived in the United States where it was met by an honor guard. He will be buried Aug. 13 at Riverside Cemetery in Eastend, Saskatchewan, with full military honors as an American soldier beneath a grave marker inscribed with his name.
Paul Huard is an educator, analyst and historian who writes about the military, foreign policy and U.S. political history. A former newsroom reporter for daily newspapers in California and Oregon, he covered government and politics for more than a decade. You can follow him at his blog https://theshoutheardroundtheworld.wordpress.com/