Wisconsin nonprofit is on a mission to search for MIAs, help families
by Meg Jones, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MIDDLETON – Gerald Jacobsen was sent out on a patrol in Normandy a month after the D-Day invasion and never seen again.
The 27-year-old forward observer from St. Paul, Minn., and his commander were ahead of their Army company as they pushed into the village of Saint-Lo on July 15, 1944. The next day comrades discovered the body of Jacobsen's commander but not Jacobsen. Remains in a freshly dug grave nearby were exhumed and initially identified as a man who was found a few months later alive at Walter Reed Hospital. The body was reburied in an American cemetery in Normandy under a cross with no name.
Brad Jacobsen suspects the remains are his Uncle Jerry and wants to bring him home but he has become frustrated with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which he said has taken too long and isn't doing enough to identify the unidentified remains in the grave.
But Jacobsen — a 63-year-old Air Force veteran — has one person in his corner, Middleton documentary filmmaker Jed Henry, who recently founded a nonprofit, the Pfc. Lawrence Gordon Foundation, to look for MIAs and advocate on behalf of families of the missing.
Henry admits he's surprised at the turns his life has taken since he decided to make a documentary about his World War II veteran grandfather several years ago. When Henry learned one man in his grandfather's company had died in battle but was never identified and given a proper burial he decided to do something about it.
Through Henry's research and intervention, Lawrence Gordon, a Canadian serving in the U.S. Army, was found buried with German soldiers in a crypt in Normandy. After DNA testing proved it was Gordon, his remains were buried in 2014 in his hometown on the 70th anniversary of his death.
Frustrated at what Henry calls the bureaucratic inefficiencies of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, he decided to create the foundation. So far he has no funding but he's trying to raise money to help families who learned of his work identifying Gordon's remains and contacted him for help.
The foundation "got created out of sort of a necessity," Henry said at his Middleton home, where the living room is filled with boxes of records and notes. "I was convinced of the (American government's) 'no man left behind' rhetoric. But now I don't think the rhetoric was sincere."
MIA agency faulted
Henry, 36, faults the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency for spending so much money —about $100 million annually — with what he says is relatively little to show for the expenditures. Congress increased funding to track down thousands of missing service members in 2010 with the provision that at least 200 MIAs be identified each year. But identification efforts stalled because of bureaucratic infighting, outdated science, poor leadership and a series of scandals that prompted then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to merge two agencies in 2014 into the current agency.
Last year 108 MIAs were identified; 77 identifications were made in 2015.
About 73,000 of the 407,000 Americans killed during World War II remain missing with roughly half considered unrecoverable because they were lost at sea or in plane crashes. Though the American Graves Registration Service recovered and identified many MIAs after World War II, that huge undertaking officially ended in 1951 as the Korean War was underway. Thousands more troops were added to MIA lists in Korea and Vietnam.
Henry said now that DNA technology has rapidly improved and it's much easier and cheaper to identify remains, the American government should be moving quicker to bring closure to families. The search and recovery of Gordon's remains cost $25,000.
"I don't fault people who were doing a difficult job under difficult circumstances," Henry said of the graves registration officials working after World War II. "I do fault people sitting in comfortable chairs who have the ability to right the wrong, especially if the technology exists that can help them do that."
A phone message left for a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency public affairs officer was not returned.
Henry has helped the family of Army Staff Sgt. Tom McCaslin, who was killed in a B-26 plane crash in France June 22, 1944, during a night raid near Omaha Beach. The bodies of some of the crew members were found but McCaslin and two crewmen in the rear of the bomber remain missing. A relic hunter found human remains in 2014 near the site, which were turned over to the U.S. accounting agency.
McCaslin's nephew and namesake, an Omaha, Neb. police detective, said the family is still waiting for word on whether the bones are his uncle's.
"Jed provided us quite a few reports and put us in touch with the man who found the bones," Tom McCaslin said. "He's been just unbelievably helpful in navigating the process."
Jacobsen contacted Henry last year for help with his uncle's missing remains. He strongly suspects his uncle was buried in the grave of an unidentified soldier because he was last seen in the area where the body was found and the ID number on the underwear matches his uncle's ID number. The body was exhumed last year; Jacobsen hasn't heard any news.
"I would have given up a long time ago without him. I hit roadblocks from the government every step of the way. Without Jed's contacts and his inside information and him letting me know how things work, we would have gotten nowhere," Jacobsen said.
For more information visit pfclawrencegordonfoundation.org