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Family comforted to know remains of recently identified World War II soldier from Denver coming home

Remains of recently identified World War II soldier from Denver coming home
Remains of recently identified World War II soldier from Denver coming home 04:29

Laid out on a dining room table in a Denver-area home are the things that help Barb Bernhardt remember her uncle; the photos, the medals, the memories. 

Decades after he was killed in World War 2, the body of U.S. Army Sgt. Harold A. Schafer of Denver will be back in Colorado this summer to be laid to rest in the state where he grew up. It has been a long and difficult period of heartbreak for his family.

"He was just so beloved," said Bernhardt, the daughter of Schafer's sister and one of the last remaining relatives. "It was just heartbreaking, especially to my grandma. My grandma was never the same. She just deteriorated, And my grandpa too."

Barb Bernhardt talks to CBS News Colorado about the remains of her uncle -- U.S. Army Sgt. Harold A. Schafer -- being returned to Denver, decades after he was killed in World War II. CBS

Schafer was killed in the German town of Dillingen on Dec. 10, 1944. He was 28 years old. It came as the Allies pushed German forces back into their own country in the months following D-Day. Schafer landed at Utah Beach the day after D-Day as the brutal slog began. He was part of Company B, 1st Battalion, 357th Infantry Regiment, 90th Infantry Division.

It was months before his family got their first terrible telegram, stating briefly that he was missing in action. It was later that another was delivered to his young wife informing the family that he was dead. But there was no information on his body. It was never returned.

"My grandpa was a German from Russia," said Bernhardt. "They lived originally in Globeville, which was the place where the immigrants lived," she recalled.

Her uncle worked in Denver and coached girl's softball.

"He was everybody's favorite. He loved to dance. You know you could just tell. He was just perfect. You know, the best guy."

She does not know whether he enlisted or was drafted, but in 1943, he was in the Army and at basic training begging his sister to come visit him. He was unsure as a small man that the job was a fit for him. But older than many others around him, he was eventually made a sergeant.

U.S. Army soldiers of the 357th Regiment, 90th Infantry Division -- Shafer's Schafer's regiment and division -- were fighting Nazis across the Saar River near Dillingen. Courtesy / U.S. Army Signal Corp via National World War II Museum

"It has to be a pretty special person to be a coach and I knew he would have been wonderful with the young people that he had under him," said Bernhardt.

That was apparently the case: In a letter to the family after his death, Schafer's commanding officer and friend, Lt. Robert W. Landis wrote, "Harold and I were very close. We shared the same hole, ate the same grub, went through the same hell."

Landis wrote of his friend's service and devotion: "We were all there, we all had a job to do. Harold more than did his share. Please believe me, it wasn't in vain or to no purpose. We saw what they did over there."

A letter from U.S. Army Lt. Robert W. Landis to Sgt. Harold A. Schafer's wife expresses his grief about Shafer's death CBS

He was killed in a trench amid heavy back-and-forth fighting. His family was told in a letter that he had stood up to help a wounded fellow soldier and was hit in the face by machine gun fire and killed instantly. The Americans were forced to retreat across the Saar River and leave the dead behind. That was the last anyone knew.

For years, Schafer's mother wrote letters to the military asking her son's whereabouts. Her mind was plagued with thoughts of her him.

"Her troubled mind was not at rest until she died," said Bernhardt. Schafer's wife soon re-married and was no longer close with the family as they wondered. Bernhardt as a child felt the pain when she made a discovery.

"That is how I first came to know about him," she continued. "I found that letter in the drawer."

Her mother, the sister of a fallen war hero, had written to her brother about the time of his death. The letter was returned stamped in large letters: "Deceased."

As years went on and family members passed away Bernhardt was left piles of books and letters. From time to time she would look at them, reading about her uncle.

"For some reason, I would go into the closet, I would open to Harold's page and I would read a little something," she remembered. "I did this three or four times over a period of years. Finally, the last time I said, 'OK Harold.'"

She looked up the town where he was killed. She found an article in Stars and Stripes, the Defense Department-operated news outlet, that told her an organization of people in Germany spent time looking for lost remains and had recently been able to help identify a fallen soldier at Dillingen. It was another soldier. She sent a note to Stars and Stripes and the phone rang the following day. It was a member of the organization named Chris, calling to tell her that yes, he would look for her brother. Years followed, with Chris staying in touch. There was nothing. Until 2021.

"And he said, you know, they got permission, the DPAA got permission to exhume 13 unknown soldiers from a plot which turned out to be in Normandy," Bernhardt said. The soldiers included those killed at Dillingen.

The DPAA is the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. The agency, with a large facility at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska, is charged with finding and identifying missing soldiers. Three remains found at a cemetery in the Pachten-Dillingen area, which had been buried by a German clergyman, were eventually removed by American forces and reinterred as "Unknown" at the Normandy American Cemetery in the Normandy area of, France. In 2018, DPAA historians looked at the documentation they had and ultimately in August of 2021, disinterred and sent to a DPAA laboratory for analysis and identification.

"For Sgt. Schafer, we started, of course, with the historical aspect of finding where these unknown remains were recovered back in the 40s. And who might have been lost in that general area," said Dr. Carrie Brown, Lab Manager and Forensic Anthropologist for the DPAA. "We also used anthropology to assess the remains and look at the biological profile and any trauma that may have taken place at or around the time of death."

Knowing that Schafer was shot in the face, they looked for a match with the remains. They looked at dental records for surviving teeth. "And then we also did DNA," Bernhardt said.

Fortunately, she and her sister had both submitted their DNA.

"The forensic process that they go through is just unbelievable," she said.

The phone call from the DPAA went to her older sister in Arizona.

"And she said 'are you sitting down? You're not going to believe this,'" Bernhardt said. "I was just so happy. And amazed. I was just happy and amazed. It was just, 'wow.'"

The remains of Schafer's body are still with the DPAA in Omaha. The family is now planning to bring them back to Colorado in July for burial.

The U.S. Army service photo of Sgt. Harold A. Schafer is seen next to his Purple Heart. He also received the Bronze Star and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal. CBS

"It will be wonderful, really. It's going to be a celebration," said Bernhardt. "I think I'm going to cry then. I don't cry much."

Her grandmother, she hopes, can rest: "Grandma, we got him home. He's home. It's all you ever wanted was to have him home."

Schafer will be flown to Colorado and there will be a procession to Fort Logan National Cemetery. His marker there, placed in 1961 while he was still missing, will be replaced with a new one. He will be buried with full military honors.

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