The DNA way home

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A Minnesota family has been waiting more than 70 years to solve a mystery.  It dates back to World War II when a relative vanished from the beaches of Normandy. With help from the Fox 9 Investigators, they are closer than ever to finally getting some answers.


The house of Don Franklin's grandparents in Willmar, Minnesota had been a place of sweet memories for the young boy from Minneapolis.

That is until a fateful visit one day in 1944. His grandparents had just received word that their son had died in World War II.

"So I rushed in and they were there sitting absolutely silent," remembered Franklin.

John Anderson was killed in action during the D-day invasion.

His ship, the Wolverine, ran aground after being hit by a Nazi explosive. The Anderson's were told their son's body had washed out to sea.

His parents placed a stone marker in a Willmar cemetery to honor John. They bought a plot next to their own, just in case.


Then six years ago, Franklin received a stunning news. Researchers, complete strangers, notified him there was a chance his uncle was not lost at sea. They'd discovered old war records indicating he was buried in a grave marked "unkown" at an American cemetery in Normandy, France.

John Lindstrand, a military historian from Willmar, teamed up with Franklin to see if they could solve the mystery. Lindstrand found additional clues.

Grave number 14 seemed like it might be the final resting place of Anderson. But the Department of Defense rejected the family's repeated requests for the remains to be exhumed for DNA testing.

After the Fox 9 Investigators profiled the case last year, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar stepped in.  "This doesn't take a major, major effort. It's simply looking at the remains and doing a little more investigation," she said.

Then last October,  the Department of Defense disinterred grave 14.


Those remains were sent to Offutt Airforce Base in Bellevue, Nebraska. There a team of forensic scientists is working to identify the remains of service members killed in World War II.

"These men and women went and died for our country and we need to bring them home," said Carrie Brown an anthropologist.

The lab is massive, about 27,000 square feet housed within another large building where bombers for World War II were once built.

Remains of the fallen sit atop 40 tables in the main lab, 39 of the tables are filled with those from the USS Oklahoma.  More than 300 service members who died on that ship were never identified when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Their remains were collected and buried together in a Hawaiian cemetery.


Anthropologists examine every bone and fragment, trying to single out matches. DNA is then used to verify their findings. The process can take months or years.

Families have criticized the Department of Defense for not moving faster to make ID's because survivors of the fallen are dying.

"I think that's another one of the very big challenges that we face," said Brown. "Time is not a friend of this mission, time is definitely one of the challenges we work against."

The DNA samples collected at the base are sent to another military lab on the east coast for testing. The turn-around time averages ten weeks.

Critics say the process could be much faster if private labs were also used.

"Instead of spending hundreds of hours, manpower hours examining a case, it may be a dozen or less," said DNA expert, Ed Huffine.

We don't know if or when, the Nebraska lab will make a positive ID on what may be John Anderson's remains. The Department of Defense won't discuss specific cases.


There is another set of unidentified remains at the lab that could be another Minnesota service member. John Shersha of  Virginia (Minnesota) never returned home from World War II.  What are believed to be his remains, were recently discovered in a Belgium Cemetery.