published Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Soldier's long journey home restores hope, faith

  • photo
    Eddie Harris talks about his father, Cecil Harris. Hikers found the remains of Cecil Harris in France.
    Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Cecil Harris, of Palmer, Tenn., in Grundy County, died too young and too far from home.

At 19, on Jan. 2, 1945, he was killed in a battle over a ridge as the Allies pushed the Germans out of France along the French and German border between Metz and Strasbourg. Then for nearly 70 years, no one knew what happened to his body after fellow soldiers saw him die.

But now, thanks to the goodness of strangers -- even enemies -- we do. And Cecil Harris is coming home.

For all of the terrible stories we read and see on television today about international enemies, terrorists, apathy and the ugliness of war, Harris' story, told in Sunday's Chattanooga Times Free Press by reporter Ben Benton, offers a glimmer of hope -- a brightness for our observation of humanity here and abroad.

Now we know that Harris' enemies -- perhaps even those who killed him in battle -- also buried him. Thanks, in part, to the time they took to mark his grave, albeit crudely, his remains were found and eventually were returned to American soil at Pearl Harbor where they await a date for burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

The Germans buried Harris a half a world away from where he had lived with his wife and the infant son whom he had seen only once while on leave. They laid him to rest with his dog tags beneath a towering rock formation on that ridge in Eastern France. Above, on the rock, they etched an 'H' and a scratchy cross on the stone.

Generations later, a French hiker paused for shade beneath the rock formation, noticed the etching and then spotted something white in the ground. As Benton wrote Sunday: "Sinking his fingers into the sandy soil, he met an American father, a soldier, a boy from Tennessee who wanted most of all to come home."

The hiker, Vito DeLuca, closed the hole and contacted his friend Eric Schell, a World War II history buff. Schell, DeLuca and two other friends returned to see whether DeLuca had actually found a lost soldier. They immediately suspected that the remains could be those of a German or American soldier, so they closed the hole again and experts were notified. A couple of days later, officials began excavating and discovered the dog tags of U.S. soldier, "Harris, Cecil E," buttons, uniform insignia, unspent ammunition and parts of a human skeleton. Harris' tag matched a name that appears on the Wall of the Missing at the American Cemetery at Epinal in the Vosges Mountains. An investigation was triggered on the other side of the world, and and eventually Harris' next of kin -- including that son he held not long before he died -- was found and notified.

Finally, after all these years, the kindness of a string of strangers is bringing Cecil Harris home.

The son, Eddie Harris, now 70, says he feels at last like he knows his father "a little better" since pouring through the family lore and letters and other information that DeLuca's discovery brought back to the family's attention.

He says the family has talked more about what young Cecil Harris was like and has speculated about the man he might have become.

"I wonder what we'd have done all these years," Harris said. "The way he loved to hunt and I love to hunt, I'm sure we'd have done a lot together."

Those lost years can't be replaced, but the closure and comfort of being able, finally, to give Cecil Harris a hero's welcome home and a U.S. burial -- thanks to both enemies and strangers -- can't be underestimated.

It is easy in our world to lose hope as the globe becomes one powder keg after another. We, like the Harrises, are grateful for U.S. Army Pvt. First Class Cecil E. Harris' thoughtful battlefield burial. We are equally grateful for the curiosity and persistence of the French hiker who didn't just walk on after he found an oddity while resting in the shade.

Hope and goodness are eternal when we make them so.

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