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A mystery's solved in the death of WWII seaman John Anderson

John Anderson of Willmar, who enlisted at 22 to fight in World War II and died on D-Day.

John Anderson of Willmar, who enlisted at 22 to fight in World War II and died on D-Day.

On June 6, 1944, John Anderson was working alone in the engine room of the warship USS LCT 30. A German shell struck, tearing out the midship and exploding the engine room. Anderson was killed instantly. 

It was the day of the Normandy Invasion, and the casualties were enormous. When the battle was over, the survivors picked through the carnage and carried away all the human remains they would find. Some of the dead were easily identifiable from their dog tags. In Anderson's case, the blast and the fire and the sheer damage to his body made that impossible.

Anderson was interred in a military cemetery in France, under a marker that read, "Here rests in honored glory, a comrade in arms, known but to God."

He was only 24.

Born to Swedish immigrants and bred in Willmar, he enlisted at 22, leaving his parents, three older sisters, and a fiance, Hannah Anderson. They had plans to get married when he returned from the war. He intended to inherit his father's home remodeling business. 

The way he thought about war was preserved in his letters home. "I"m here to fix things so he won't have to when he grows up," Anderson wrote of a young nephew. "Well I just as soon be home but I'm willing to stick this out to help protect my country."

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For 70 years, Anderson's family's assumed he'd been washed away at sea. His parents passed away. A memorial dedicated to their son accompanied their plots.

Then, in 2009, two hobby historians who made it their life's work to help military families find their MIA loved ones — Ted Darcy of Massachusetts and Brian Siddal of New York — contacted Anderson's surviving sisters.

They'd been pouring through records from World War II when they discovered that John Anderson was one of two crew members on the USS LCT 30 who died on D-Day. The other soldier had been identified. That linked Anderson to the Unknown-91 gravesite at Saint Laurent Cemetery. 

A sister offered a DNA sample. But the Department of Defense wouldn't bite. The military needed more evidence of a correlation. At the time, disinterment wasn't a popular option.

Anderson's family reached out to a local history junkie, Jon Lindstrand, for help through the stalemate. Lindstrand, a collector of military artifacts from the Civil War onward, had already heard of Anderson.  

"It became very personal," Lindstrand says. "When the family contacted me, I very much wanted to see this through and get to the bottom of this. I always latched on to John. I think it was the name. John and Jon. I just felt a personal connection that way. I was always interested in his situation."

Lindstrand dug into more documentation of the attack on Anderson's ship and tracked down survivors among the crew — or the next of kin of those who'd already passed on. He went to U.S. Sen. Al Franken's office to appeal the Department of Defense's decision. He also went to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who wrote a letter asking the military to please reconsider.

Eventually, the Navy agreed. The Army signed off. So did the American Battle Monuments Commission. Chipping through all the layers of bureaucracy took years.

In the meantime, each of Anderson's sisters died, leaving nine nieces and nephews.

Anderson was disinterred in October. His remains were sent to Nebraska for DNA testing. They matched. The family was told in March.

"John was truly, to me, was a truly remarkable guy," Lindstrand says. "At various points he was involved in the invasions of Sicily and Italy. They were some pretty hairy experiences, and he had come to grips within the concept of his own faith that there was always a strong possibility that he wouldn’t return. 

"Now, after all this time to finally bring that closure, that whole thing, full circle, from being a young man of 24 from Minnesota who died in war, to finally bring him home, it’s pretty powerful."

Anderson's remains will soon be returned to Minnesota. A service is scheduled for late May at the Fairview Cemetery in Willmar where his parents are laid to rest.