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WWII vet keeps vow to fallen pals

WWII vet keeps vow to fallen pals


Chicago Tribune staff reporter

     When German artillery fire killed three of their friends on a winter day in 1944, Vernon Swanson and other GIs marked the makeshift graves with helmets, confident they would return for the bodies as soon as the shooting stopped.

     The soldiers didn't realize they had been swept up in the Battle of the Bulge, which would rage for six bloody weeks. They never made it back to the hastily dug gravesite.

     Swanson's friends were among the roughly 11,000 Americans killed in the fighting, some of World War II's deadliest. An additional 48,000 were wounded. The remains of hundreds of missing soldiers — including more than two dozen from Swanson's 99th Infantry Division — still lie buried on a 1,200-square-mile battleground that sprawled through the thickly forested Ardennes region of Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany.

     Swanson survived the war, earning three Purple Hearts. In 1948, he received an engineering degree from Iowa State, where he met his wife, Meg. By the 1950s, the two had settled in Deerfield IL, where they would raise four sons. Swanson, now a village trustee, kept hoping the graves of his foxhole buddy, Jack Beckwith, and the two other soldiers could be located even after the Army quit looking for missing war dead in the early 1950s.

     Over the years, Swanson wasn't able to do much more than write occasional letters to the Army, telling them where he thought the bodies were buried. He also stayed in touch with Beckwith's mother. But when he retired from his career as an engineer in the late 1980s, he vowed to do whatever he could to help find their remains.

     It took more than a decade of detective work by Swanson, other veterans of the 99th Infantry Division, and a group of Belgians armed with metal detectors, but just over three months ago, the bodies were finally found in the area where Swanson said he helped bury them.

     "The reason why we did this? You just don't bury a body and forget about it," said Swanson, 77, who grew up in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood. The long search began in 1988 when two Belgians who explored the battlefield as a hobby discovered the remains of a 99th Infantry soldier. They contacted the editor of the division's newsletter, who wrote an article seeking information on 33 other missing men, including Swanson's three friends.

     About that time, Swanson joined the veterans association and got involved in the hunt, helping gather details about the men's rank, what they were wearing and doing and, most important, where they might have been killed.

     Storing the information on computers, Swansons and others also pored over maps, photographs, aerial shots, official Army reports, witness accounts and any other records they could find about the battle that would help pinpoint the men's last known location.

     By 1990, the veterans had stepped up the search, sharing information and transmitting new leads by e-mail with the two Belgians, who live just 20 miles from the battlefield and searched in their free time. They used metal detectors and shovels to check a 10-square-mile area where the data suggested many of the 33 missing men might have fallen.

     A lucky break led the diggers to the bodies of Swanson's friends, according to one of the Belgians, Jean-Philippe Speder.

     That came in April when Speder's partner, Jean-Louis Seel, went to a site where souvenir hunters in late March had found dog tags and a billfold that belonged to Beckwith, who was from LaMoure ND.

     Seel and other diggers had frequently visited that location at different times in the 1990s to search for the three GIs near an old medic station the veterans had identified. Seel decided to check the other side of an adjacent trail but found nothing.

     As he headed back to his parked car, Seel's metal detector started beeping. Under a thin layer of soil he found the dog tag of one of the three missing men, Pfc. David Read of Hudson OH. Two yards away, Seel saw a narrow trench about the length of a man. The metal detector picked up another hit, and when Seel began digging he found a hipbone.

     When the rest of the shattered skeleton was unearthed, the dog tag fastened around the neck was that of Pfc. Jack C. Beckwith. The diggers speculated that the souvenir hunters had found Beckwith's second set of dog tags at a spot where his battalion had gathered a few days before he was killed.

     Just yards from Beckwith's body, the Belgians found the remains of Read and Pfc. Saul Kokotovich of Gary IN, the last of the three. Like Swanson, the three soldiers belonged to Company C of the 395th Regiment. The 30 other missing men were in different regiments of the 99th Infantry Division.

     As they were growing up, Seel and Speder often heard their grandparents talk about how they nearly starved under Nazi occupation and how American soldiers brought bread when they liberated Belgium.

     The two friends were teen-agers when they began a lifelong interest in collecting war relics on the Bulge battleground. In recent years, two other Belgians have helped them.

     So far, they have found 10 bodies. Two have been officially identified by the Army and returned to the U.S. for burial. Another two are being examined at the military's Central Identification Laboratory in Honolulu HI. The other six, including Swanson's friends, are at a U.S. Army mortuary in Landstuhl, Germany.

     The Army will only confirm the identity of a body after a positive match is made. So it could take months before the remains are returned to the families, said Larry Greer, spokesman for the Defense Department's POW-MIA office.

     When he returned home after the war, Swanson wrote to Army officials and told them where he thought they might find the three men's bodies. The last time he heard from them was in 1951, he said.

     That was when World War II's "missing in action" were reclassified as "killed in action" and the search for American war dead in Europe tapered off.

     "The Army gave up," said Beckwith's half brother Sam Ohnstad, of Miles City MT, who was 11 in 1944. "But they never gave up, and they still haven't given up," he said of the soldiers of the 99th Infantry Division and their efforts to find their dead comrades.