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Family comforted as remains of recently identified World War II soldier come home from Denver

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 II, the body of Sgt. Harold A. Schafer of Denver will return to Colorado this summer 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 loved,” said Bernhardt, the daughter of Schafer’s sister and one of the last surviving family members. “It was just heartbreaking, especially for my grandma. My grandma was never the same. She just kept getting worse, and so did my grandpa.”

Barb Bernhardt talks to CBS News Colorado about the remains of her uncle, a U.S. Army sergeant. Harold A. Schafer – is sent back to Denver, decades after being killed in World War II.

CBS


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

It was months before his family received their first terrible telegram, briefly declaring him missing. Another was later delivered to his young wife, informing the family that he was dead. But there was no information about his body. It was never returned.

“My grandfather was a German from Russia,” Bernhardt said. “They originally lived in Globeville, where the immigrants lived,” she remembers.

Her uncle worked in Denver coaching girls softball.

‘He was everyone’s favourite. He loved to dance. You just noticed that. He was just perfect. You know, the best guy.”

She doesn’t know if he enlisted or was drafted, but in 1943 he was in the Army and undergoing basic training and begged his sister to come visit him. As a small man, he wasn’t sure if the job was right for him. But older than many others around him, he was eventually made a sergeant.

U.S. Army soldiers from the 357th Regiment, 90th Infantry Division – Shafer’s Schafer’s regiment and division – fought Nazis across the Saar River near Dillingen.

Courtesy / US Army Signal Corp via the National World War II Museum


“He must be a pretty special person to be a coach and I knew he would have been great with the young people he had under him,” Bernhardt said.

That was apparently the case: In a letter to the family after his death, Schafer’s commander and friend, Lieutenant Robert W. Landis, wrote: “Harold and I were very close. We shared the same hole, ate the same food, went through the same hell.”

Landis wrote of his friend’s service and dedication: “We were all there, we all had a job. Harold did more than his share. Please believe me, it was not in vain or without any purpose. We saw what they did. over there.”

A letter from U.S. Army Lieutenant Robert W. Landis to Sgt. Harold A. Schafer’s wife expresses sorrow over 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 gotten up to help a wounded fellow soldier and was hit in the face by machine gun fire, killing him instantly. The Americans were forced to withdraw across the Saar River, leaving the dead behind. That was the last anyone knew.

Schafer’s mother wrote letters to the military for years asking where her son was. Her mind was plagued with thoughts of her and him.

“Her troubled mind did not settle until she died,” Bernhardt said. Schafer’s wife soon remarried and no longer had a close relationship with the family, as they wondered. Bernhardt felt the pain as a child when she made a discovery.

“That’s how I first met 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 the years passed and family members died, Bernhardt was left with stacks of books and letters. Every now and then she would look at it and read about her uncle.

“For some reason I went into the closet, opened Harold’s page and read something,” she recalled. “I’ve done this three or four times over a period of years. Finally, the last time I said, ‘Okay Harold.'”

She looked up the town where he was murdered. She found an article in Stars and Stripes, the Defense Department-run news outlet, that said an organization of people in Germany had spent time searching for lost remains and had recently been able to help identify a fallen soldier in Dillingen. It was another soldier. She sent a note to Stars and Stripes and the next day the phone rang. It was a member of the organization named Chris who called her to tell her that he would indeed be looking for her brother. Years followed, with Chris staying in touch. There was nothing. Until 2021.

“And he said, you know, they were given permission, the DPAA was given permission to exhume thirteen unknown soldiers from a plot that turned out to be in Normandy,” Bernhardt said. The soldiers also included those killed at Dillingen.

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

“For Sergeant Schafer, we obviously started with the historical aspect of finding where these unknown remains were found in the 1940s. And who may have been lost in that general area,” says 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 occurred at or around the time of death.”

Knowing Schafer had been shot in the face, they searched for a match to the remains. They looked at dental records for remaining teeth. “And then we also did DNA,” Bernhardt said.

Luckily, she and her sister both submitted their DNA.

“The forensic process they go through is just incredible,” she said.

The DPAA call went to her older sister in Arizona.

“And she said, ‘are you going to sit 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 at the DPAA in Omaha. The family now plans to return them to Colorado for burial in July.

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 really great. It will be a celebration,” Bernhardt said. ‘I think I’m going to cry then. I don’t cry much.’

She hopes her grandmother can rest: ‘Grandma, we have him at home. He is home. 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 when he was still missing, will be replaced with a new one. He will be buried with full military honors.