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Soldier is back home nearly 70 years after death

Aug. 30, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  

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CHATTANOOGA, TENN. — Helen Harris Cooke had her whole life ahead of her when her first husband, Cecil E. Harris, was lost in the fog of war and the mountains of northeastern France.

Pregnant when Harris left home in Shelbyville to fight in World War II, a 20-year-old mother the last time she heard from him, Cooke remarried and had two more children after Harris was declared dead.

But she never stopped hoping and praying that some sign of him would turn up someday.

Amazingly, it did.

"I always say my prayers at night," said Cooke, now 90. "The Lord answered my prayers after 70 years."

Harris was a 19-year-old private first class in the U.S. Army's 179th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division, when his rifle platoon came under heavy fire from German troops in Dambach, France, on the second day of 1945. American soldiers who survived the German attack later realized he was missing.

But four French men stumbled upon what turned out to be a human skull while hiking near Dambach, near the German border, last year. Discovery of the shallow hilltop grave led to an ID tag bearing Harris' name, a DNA match, the return of the remains to American soil and, finally, a funeral Friday morning at Red Bank Baptist Church in Chattanooga, where Cooke lives.

About 100 people, many of them relatives and veterans, attended the solemn service seven decades after his passing. Members of the Tennessee Army National Guard carried in Harris' casket, draped by the American flag. Many-Bears Grinder, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs, presented Cooke a state flag and other gifts, and Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, a Chattanooga Republican, gave the widow her husband's military medals.

A bagpiper played taps and "Amazing Grace."

Harris will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Oct. 22. His and Cooke's son, Eddie Harris, who was just a few months old the only time he ever saw his father, said he's looking forward to burying him with the full military honors he deserves.

Eddie is 70 now, a veteran of the Vietnam and Gulf wars who, like the father he has no way of remembering, loves to hunt and fish and ride horses.

"This is just a miracle to me," he said.

A young father gets drafted

The former Helen Lewis met Cecil Harris, one of nine children, at her brother's wedding in Palmer, Tenn., a small Grundy County town. They went on their first date at a revival meeting, chaplain Reggie Asplund said during the funeral service, and then wrote each other regularly and saw each other whenever they could. They got married on Oct. 21, 1942, and went to live on Harris' grandmother's farm in Bedford County.

Harris, described by his son as a "happy go lucky guy," was running the farm when he got drafted. Just before he left for basic training in February 1944, he told his pregnant wife, "I have a feeling I won't be back," the chaplain said. She was so distraught that she couldn't bear to get out of the car and go to the train to see him off.

Less than a year later, Pfc. Harris' unit was pinned down by "an overwhelming and desperate German force" in Dambach on Jan. 2, 1945, Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Gulley said. It was Operation Nordwind, the Germans' last offensive on Europe's western front, near the end of the Battle of the Bulge.

The Americans were forced to withdraw to a better position, but they lost track of Harris, the ammunition bearer, in the chaos. The battle "was the last time anyone who knew his name would see him alive," Gulley said.

Back in Palmer, where she had moved with her young son so they could be close to her parents, Helen Harris was shopping one day that month when she ran into the postman. He handed her a telegram with terrible news: Her husband was missing in action.

She took off running down the street, dropping her purse and everything she had bought.

"I just lost it," she said in a phone interview earlier this week.

It was a couple of years before the Army declared Cecil Harris dead, his sister Janice Carlton said. By then, the fallen soldier's wife had already been saying her prayers for many, many nights.

An H and a cross

A few years after Harris was declared dead, his wife married David Wayne Cooke. They had two boys and were married for 51 years before he passed away, she said.

There was never any word about what had happened to Harris until September, when the American Battlefield Monuments Commission told the Pentagon's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command that French hikers had found what appeared to be human remains. They had discovered a possible grave under a large stone outcropping on which someone had carved a cross and a single letter: H.

Harris' son, Eddie, said one of the hikers, a man named Vito DeLuca, told him that when he sat down under the big rock, he touched the ground and felt "what he thought was a skull." It was poking out of a grave that was less than two feet deep, DeLuca told Harris, who lives in Mountain City, Tenn.

The Pentagon unit later found what Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, called "a World War II version of a dog tag" with Harris' name on it. The excavation team also found buttons from a World War II-era Army uniform and "a single lapel disc, badly corroded, but still readable" that said "U.S.," Gulley said.

DNA tests and dental records proved that the remains were Harris'. More than 25,000 days after he died, he would be coming home to Tennessee.

'Mama, do the best you can'

Harris' body was flown from Hawaii to Knoxville on Wednesday. Family members were on hand to see his flag-draped casket come off the plane. When the casket was opened, they saw the soldier's military dress blues and medals carefully arranged, said Carlton, who was 10 when her brother died.

It was a moment that brought some relief, though it couldn't change the terrible truth.

"It is closure on the wondering what happened," Carlton said Thursday while sharing letters, photos and news clippings about her brother at her home in Shelbyville. "But you never close a loss like that. It's always on your mind. It's always there."

Harris posthumously received the Combat Infantryman Badge, Bronze Star and Purple Heart, the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs said. He also received the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal and World War II Victory Medal.

Two days before he died, on Dec. 31, 1944, Cecil Harris closed out the year with a letter to his mother, Mary, from "somewhere in France."

"Tell all hello from me," he scrawled. "Mama, do the best you can till I get back."

Nearly 70 years later, he finally got back.

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