By Joe Hickman, KY3
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - U.S. Army Pvt. James J. Cansler was 21 years-old when he died during World War II while fighting in Germany. The Bolivar native had joined the Army on May 31, 1944 and was reported missing in action just over five months later on Dec. 19, 1944 after his unit was involved in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest in Vossenack, Germany.
Cansler and other members of his company were working to secure a road and a section of the forest. He was last seen at the edge of the forest and was reported missing the next day.
“The Battle of the Hurtgen Forest was the longest battle of World War II,” pointed out Gary Gilmore, the chaplain who spoke at Cansler’s memorial service on Wednesday. “The forest in Germany has a bad reputation. If you ask Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel about the deep, dark forest, that’s the forest that those stories are set in.”
According to a news release from Greenlawn Funeral Home who handled the memorial service, after World War II the American Graves Registration Command launched an investigation and search to track down the remains of American service members throughout Europe. They searched the Hurtgen area between 1946 and 1950 but did not locate Cansler’s remains. In 1951, Cansler was classified as “non-recoverable.”
It was many years later when a historian working for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (a part of the Dept. of Defense) realized a set of unidentified remains found in a minefield north of Vossenack in 1946 could belong to Cansler. Those remains had been buried in 1950 at Ardennes American Cemetery.
The remains were disinterred in June, 2018 and taken to the DPAA Laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. Scientists used dental and anthropological evidence, along with DNA evidence from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, to confirm Cansler’s identity on Jan. 29, 2020.
The DNA they used to match with Cansler came from his nephew, 74 year-old Jimmy Keith of Springfield, who was born after his uncle died.
At the Greenlawn Funeral Home a representative from the Army presented Keith with several items including Cansler’s dog tags plus a Bronze Star Medal (awarded for heroic or meritorious achievement or service) and a Purple Heart (wounded or killed while serving).
It was a bittersweet moment for Keith.
“It was kind of lonesome actually,” Keith said. “His brother that enlisted with him just passed away in 2016 and it would have been really nice if we could have done this when his brother or my mother (Cansler’s sister) was still here.”
But Jimmy found out that he did have an extended family during the services. There were people along the side of the road with American flags waving as the funeral procession left Greenlawn for the Missouri State Veterans Cemetery and around 30 members of the Warriors’ Watch Riders were also on hand. The group, which provides motorcycle escorts for funerals as well as send-offs, welcome-homes and parades, gathered at the funeral home to pay their respects to their fallen hero as one-by-one they approached the flag-draped coffin and saluted.
Then they boarded their patriotically-adorned cycles to escort Cansler’s hearse to the cemetery, always an awe-inspiring and emotional sight.
It had been a long journey from Germany to Nebraska to Springfield.
But on Wednesday July 7, 2021 Bolivar’s James Cansler was finally back home getting the full military honors he deserved 77 years after giving his life for his country.
And even though no one at the memorial service ever knew the soldier, there was a shared kinship and a pride in knowing our country had remained loyal to its missing soldiers.
And they knew they owed him a debt of gratitude.
“If it wasn’t for him and guys like him I would’t have gotten to live the 74 years of freedom I have,” Keith said.
“We all forget what the people in World War II did for us,” added Glen Hastings, the commander of the VFW Honor Guard at the memorial service. “We can’t thank them enough. And it shows that the country still cares.”
“They never give up,” said Warriors’ Watch Rider Captain Kent McGregor of the continuing efforts to find MIA soldiers. “This is the second one in three weeks that we’ve done this. We did a Korean War veteran about three weeks ago and now we have a World War II veteran. They’re heroes and we’ll pay our tributes to them no matter how long it’s been.”
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