On July 28, 1944, Army Private Donald Brown, 24, of Thompson was killed in action near Cambernon, France, when his tank was hit by enemy fire.
Though his dog tags were found beneath the tank amid rubble and body parts, the government’s reluctance to positively identify him remains a mystery today, more than 70 years later.
Jed Henry, 34, a photojournalist from Middleton, Wisconsin, came across the Brown situation when he was successful in helping another family have their World War II loved one’s remains identified and returned to the U.S.
Now, Henry wants to do the same thing for Brown — but has run into bureaucratic roadblocks that frustrate him.
Henry has no connection with Brown’s family and, in fact, did now know where Thompson, Iowa, was until he found it on a map.
He said after he helped the one family identify their loved one’s remains, he got a tip about Private Brown’s remains never being identified. And that was all he needed to try to help again.
“I never had a particular interest in doing this. I always grew up believing we don’t leave soldiers behind,” he said. “With our government, returning our dead is propaganda. It’s not the commitment it should be.”
Henry’s research produced a narrative written by an Army captain, dated July 8, 1947, in which he recounts his investigation of a tank belonging to the 745th Tank Battalion, Company A.
“Within and under the rear of this tank, I found human remains,” Capt. Marion K. Cole wrote. “These remains were scattered in the rear part of the compartment. A few inches from where I found several of the larger bones, I found an identification tag for Donald E. Brown, 37190660.
“It is the belief of this officer that the remains which were removed from Tank No. 2 are those of Pvt. Donald E. Brown and it is recommended they be declared as such.”
But on June 10, 1949, a notice was sent to the quartermaster general of the Memorial Division in Washington informing him the remains of Pvt. Brown, interred in Blosville, France, had been redesignated as “unidentifiable.”
It is not known why the change was made.
Brown was the son of Andrew and Anna Brown of RFD 1, Thompson. In 1945, his sister, Lillian Thiemann of Ventura, wrote to the Army asking for her brother’s personal effects. Thiemann died two years ago.
Her daughter, Joyce Sorenson of Clear Lake, said she grew up knowing her uncle died in a tank explosion in France. About four years ago she was contacted by another party wanting to have the body identified, but nothing ever came of that.
Henry contacted her this week about his efforts. “I think it would be wonderful if he could be identified and his name be put on his grave in France,” she said.
Regarding having his remains returned, she said, “I’m still processing that and what it would all entail. I’ve been in contact with some other relatives, but it is a lot to process.”
Henry said, “The problem is, the biggest issue, the heart of the matter is how government looks at things like this. The Donald Brown case is the lowest of the lowest in the process.
“The government looks at anthropology first — solving identities through skeletons, bones, teeth — identifying about how tall the person was and other physical characteristics. There is a reluctance by the government to use DNA. Once they’ve proved the identity through other means, then they ask for DNA,” said Henry.
He has written to the Army Casualty and Mortuary Affair Operations Center at Fort Knox, Kentucky, to try to get access to the remains that the government says are unidentifiable but that he believes are those of Private Brown. He wants the remains disinterred so the evaluation can be done.
“People saw the success we had in the other case. I have all the experts in place who helped with that. If I can get access to Brown’s remains, I can get him identified for free,” said Henry.
In his letter to the Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Operation Center, Henry pointed out the Army identified the remains of Private Brown once in 1947 and then reclassified him for some reason two years later. He also pointed out Private Brown’s dog tags were found near the remains.
“Considering the advancement in DNA technology, if the government is willing to use the most advanced technology, in conjunction with the overwhelming circumstantial evidence available, I think an identification could be possible in this case,” he wrote.
Henry said there are about 10,000 “unknown soldiers” buried in U.S. cemeteries throughout the world. From 1978 through 2013, only 14 had been identified.
“The government has a system in place that says no, no, no, no, no,” said Henry. “They operate from a standpoint of all the possible soldiers it could be, and then do a process of narrowing it down.”
He received a response this week that the Army Casualty Office will process his request for disinterment and would be in touch with him when a decision is made.