Dewey Harris of Crawford County was just 23 years old when he disappeared in November 1944, during the fierce Battle of Hürtgen Forest.
One year later, after the end of World War II, the U.S. government declared the young soldier dead. But the location of his body was a mystery.
Now, 75 years after his death, his remains have been identified. Pfc. Dewey Wilbur Harris of Cherryville, Missouri, will be buried with full military honors Monday at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, where he enlisted in 1942.
Betty Martin of Steelville, Harris’ first cousin, was overjoyed when she heard his remains had been identified.
“I got all excited and I called everybody I could think of who knew him,” said Martin, 79.
“The first one I called was my brother, and I said, ‘Dewey is coming home after 75 years,’” she said. “And that wasn’t enough, so I called my niece and then I called the other cousins.”
The Battle of Hürtgen Forest, fought in Germany near the border of Belgium, lasted for three brutal months at the end of 1944. It was a back-and-forth affair — the area where Harris fell changed hands at least 36 times — that claimed at least 33,000 American casualties and 28,000 Germans.
The battlefield was laced with mines, making the recovery of bodies treacherous and difficult. It wasn’t until 1946, a year after the war ended, that American forces could retrieve their dead. The remains were sent to Belgium to what was then called the United States Military Cemetery Neuville — it’s now Ardennes American Cemetery — where they were buried. The bodies that could not be identified were given the classification Unknown X.
Harris’s remains were designated Unknown X-2702.
Ever since the end of that war, a number of agencies in the Department of Defense have been identifying the remains of U.S. fighters who fell in battle. A few years ago, those agencies were consolidated into the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
Chuck Prichard, the agency’s director of public affairs, said that 82,000 servicemen and women are unaccounted for from World War II through the wars in the Persian Gulf. Though many rest too deep at sea to be found, it is estimated that 38,000 can be recovered, he said.
Identifying the remains takes “a lot of detective work,” he said. It requires a combination of history, science, luck and “a lot of magic.”
In Harris’ case, a group of historians at the agency was looking at the Battle of Hürtgen Forest and comparing unit maneuver records with records of where remains had been found, when they noticed a discrepancy. They discovered that the hand-drawn map from which they had been working was not, as they had believed, drawn to scale.
When they realized that, Prichard said, they knew the remains they had thought were found in one place were actually found more than a mile away, near the town of Simonskall.
That discovery allowed them to narrow down one particular set of remains to five possible soldiers, including Harris.
The remains were disinterred and flown to a laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska. There, a group of scientists analyzed them. Forensic anthropologists examined the skeleton and eliminated two of the soldiers from the list. Forensic dentists looked at the teeth and eliminated two more. DNA tests on samples provided by two relatives then proved that the remains were Harris’.
Harris’ niece, Mary Stromberg of Chesterfield, said her family was “in shock” when they heard that he had been identified.
“I couldn’t believe it at first. Then I started crying and I called my sister. She said, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and she started crying too. And she said, ‘I knew Dewey would come home sometime,’” said Stromberg, 66.
Stromberg, who was born several years after the war ended, grew up hearing stories about her uncle who had disappeared during the war.
“When I was a little girl, they never told me that he was declared dead. They always said I had an uncle who was missing in the war. Being a little girl, I had this romantic vision that he had been injured and had amnesia, and he was found and was taken care of by a German nurse, and they fell in love and had a family.
“I thought I would go over to Germany and find him and he would be so happy to see me,” she said.
“I never thought he was dead. That thought never occurred to me.”
Chris Stromberg, Harris’ great-nephew and Mary Stromberg’s son, praised the department’s persistence.
“The fact that they are able to identify remains and provide closure,” said Stromberg, 36, “I think that’s fantastic.”
A funeral ceremony for Pfc. Dewey Wilbur Harris will be held at 10 a.m. Monday at Newcomer Funeral Home, 837 Mid Rivers Mall Drive, St. Peters, followed by a military burial at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.