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Willmar native might be unknown soldier buried in France

Oscar E. and Anna Anderson of Willmar died believing that their only son had been buried at sea after being killed in action during the D-Day Invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944.

Now, surviving family members hope to learn whether the remains of U.S. Navy Motor Machinist Mate 1st Class John E. Anderson were interred in the Saint Laurent Cemetery, Baveux, France, as an unknown American casualty of World War II. The cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach has since been designated as the Normandy American Military Cemetery. His name is listed there as among the "Missing In Action'' from the conflict.

Don Franklin knows that much for a fact, having visited the cemetery during a trip to Europe. Franklin is a Willmar High School alumni and music professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh.

His mother, Esther, a long-time Willmar resident now age 95 and living in Minneapolis, is the eldest surviving sister of John E. Anderson. Franklin said he never had any reason to suspect that one of the many unmarked graves could hold the remains of his late uncle.

Everything changed a few days ago, when the Rev. Mark Bengston Caledonia, son of Marian and the late Reuben Bengston of Willmar, called with news.

There is very good reason to believe that the remains of John E. Anderson are those listed in military records as ''Unknown X-91'' and buried in the cemetery in France, Bengston told his brother-in-law.

His mother Marian, 93, and Esther are the surviving sisters of John E. Anderson. A DNA swab from family members would make it possible to positively identify whether the remains are those of their brother and bring closure for the family.

It is a closure that the family would very much appreciate, according to Bengston. He said he believes it always troubled John Anderson's parents that their son was buried or lost at sea and could not be returned home.

If closure is made possible in this case, the credit will belong to Ted Darcy of Milton, Mass., and Brian Siddall of Ithaca, N.Y.

A 30-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, Darcy has made it his mission with the WFI Research Group of Fall River, Mass., to help families whose loved ones were recorded as missing in action by the U.S. military.

Darcy has helped solve many MIA cases from World War II battles in the Pacific theatre, and is now turning his attention to Europe. Siddall was poring through U.S. Navy records and passed on this information to him:

The transport ship USS LST-30 had successfully discharged members of the 467th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion on the French coast near Colleville on D-Day. During its retraction it was struck by German artillery and small arms fire and its engine room was flooded.

Two members of the crew were reported killed in action: Richard Jared Taylor of Taunton, Mass., and John Emanuel Anderson of Willmar.

Their bodies were recovered and turned over to the Army. Both bodies were buried in the Saint Laurent Cemetery, but only Ensign Taylor's grave was identified. Anderson's body was declared Unknown-91, said Darcy.

He believes that the Army had lost the records and consequently Anderson's body was wrongly interred as that of an unknown casualty.

Darcy said he realized that tracking down an Anderson six decades after his death in the Scandinavian community of Willmar, Minn., would be no sure thing. He contacted this newspaper for help in finding surviving family members. Kandiyohi County Historical Society Director Jill Wohnoutka searched through the files to not only identify the family, but to uncover West Central Tribune newspaper accounts of John Anderson's death on D-Day as a crew member of the LST-30.

Anderson had enlisted in the Navy on March 17, 1942 and took part in the Sicilian and Salerno invasions before his death at Normandy at age 24, according to those accounts.

Given the information that can be documented in this case, Darcy said he is confident that the military will approve moving ahead with the process of making a positive identification of the remains.

However, he warned that it could be several months or more before the family learns for certain whether or not the remains belong to their loved one.

If the remains are confirmed as those of John E. Anderson, the family has the option of seeing that his grave is properly marked with his name or having the remains returned to Willmar as his final resting place.

Bengston and Franklin said the family has not made any decisions. The two surviving sisters initially expressed some sentiments towards leaving his remains with the other young men he fought alongside. But Bengston, whose late father Reuben was the Tribune "Man About Town'' columnist, is a Methodist minister. He said he can't help but think of the Biblical story of Joseph in Egypt and Jacob's promise to return his bones home.

Darcy said his only concern is that surviving family members know the fate of their loved ones who died in the service of their country. There are more than 8,900 other MIA cases like this that he believes can be resolved.

To learn more about the WFI Research Group, see their web site: http://www.wfirg.org

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