One of Don Franklin’s memories from his boyhood in Willmar, Minn., is riding in the basket of his uncle John E. Anderson’s bicycle.
Franklin, now 77 and living in Pittsburgh, went on to exchange letters with his uncle, but didn’t get to know him because Anderson died on the beaches of Normandy, the only casualty of a German munition that struck his ship on June 6, 1944 — D-Day.
Anderson, a 24-year-old motor machinist’s mate in the Navy, was alone in the vessel’s boiler room and died instantly, according to reports. His family initially was told by the military that his remains had been recovered but would stay overseas until the war ended. Later they were told his remains had washed out to sea.
Finally, last week, after years of investigating and pushing both French and American governments, Franklin’s work was rewarded by DNA testing: His uncle’s remains had been buried in an unmarked grave in France.
Franklin said he feels joy at being able to bring closure to something that had been up in the air in the family for decades. Anderson was the only son and youngest child of Swedish immigrants Oscar and Anna Anderson of Willmar.
“My grandfather never really recovered and had what they called ‘an emotional heart attack,’ ” Franklin said. “It altered the course of his life.”
Next month, Anderson’s remains will be laid to rest alongside those of his parents in Willmar. Franklin will be there.
Anderson, who was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart, also will receive the military farewell he never got.
As the years passed and documents about that day became public, a pair of amateur military researchers who were on a mission to identify unknown soldiers from World War II zeroed in on a possible grave in France as the location of Anderson’s remains. In 2009, the pair notified Franklin that their research showed that grave site X-91 in the American Cemetery in Normandy contained the remains found in the boiler room of LCT-30, Anderson’s ship.
But the process would grind on for years, requiring permission from the French government to disinter the remains, then cooperation from the U.S. government to test the DNA.
Initially, Franklin was skeptical and his mother, Anderson’s eldest sister, wasn’t enthusiastic. “It became sort of a mystery, sort of a puzzle,” he said.
In 2011, the family persuaded his mother to provide a DNA sample. She died shortly thereafter at age 97.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar had also joined the pursuit for identification, personally sending a letter to the Department of Defense. “This is a family that would not give up,” Klobuchar said, adding that those who lost their lives in war deserve our respect.
Franklin also was assisted in his search for his uncle by Jon Lindstrand, a 36-year-old Willmar man with a lifelong obsession with war memorabilia and history who had always felt a kinship with the hometown hero Anderson.
When Lindstrand read an article in the Willmar newspaper in 2009 about the possibility that Anderson’s remains could be identified, he reached out to the reporter.
He said he would be happy to give Anderson’s family some clippings he had in his collection about the sailor.
Three years later, Lindstrand heard from Franklin, who had hit a wall in his quest to have the Navy test the remains in the unmarked grave.
“I dug a little deeper,” Lindstrand said, adding that he was also rebuffed. Eventually, he obtained the military’s “after action report,” an account of what happened, from the family of the late captain of Anderson’s ship. The report, which included photographs, indicated Anderson’s remains had been found after the ship was hit.
So last year, Lindstrand and Franklin again asked the Department of Defense to test the remains in the grave in France.
That’s when Klobuchar joined the effort. “We believed in them,” she said. “They cared so much about finding out about [Franklin’s] late uncle.”
When naval officers came to Franklin’s house last week, they showed him photographs of Anderson’s remains and the samples from which they’d taken DNA.
Anderson’s remains are currently in a DNA lab in Nebraska. They will arrive in Willmar next month.
Lindstrand said Anderson had become a part of his family in a sense. “It’s kind of numbing,” he said of the return of the sailor’s remains to the U.S. “It was an extreme honor to be involved in this.”
John Anderson graduated from Willmar High School in 1937. Before enlisting in 1942, he worked at his father’s painting and decorating business.
Until now, a stone commemorated him near his parents’ grave site. Franklin said that will be changed to a proper headstone.
Noted Lindstrand, “He’ll be returned to Willmar almost 72 years to the day that he died.”