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Lawrence Nelson Harris
Courtesy Harris family

West Virginia
Veterans Memorial

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Lawrence Nelson Harris
1920-1944

“Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside. . . .”

James Russell Lowell

Pfc. Lawrence Nelson Harris was born in Mill Creek, Randolph County, West Virginia, on March 16, 1920, to George W. and Bertha Wiseman Harris. According to the 1920 Federal Census, George and Bertha had one son, Paul Murl. The family would eventually include two more brothers and three sisters: Lawrence (known as Larry), Gene, Ruth, Mary, and Evelyn Lucille (known as Lucille).

Growing up on the family farm, young Larry Harris attended Randolph County schools; his World War II Army enlistment record states that he had a grammar school education. At some point, he joined the Presbyterian Church. Although farming is listed as his occupation at the time of his registration, he had served two periods in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Single at the time of his enlistment, he entered the service on January 23, 1942, at Fort Hayes in Columbus, Ohio. As a member of the 773rd Tank Battalion, he had been overseas about a year when he was killed in action in France. During his tour of duty, Pfc. Harris earned a Purple Heart, two Bronze Stars, a Presidential Unit Citation, and other commendations.

For a long time, Pfc. Harris was listed as missing, and the whereabouts of his remains were unknown. His name was inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at Epinal American Cemetery in France. His family wondered whether they’d ever have closure. Although a niece, Brenda Wamsley—daughter of Gene—wasn’t sure the Army ever told her grandparents that he had been killed or continued to list him as missing in action, an obituary in the Elkins Intermountain published the month of his death states that he was killed in action. Mrs. Wamsley commented that she was only three years old at the time of her Uncle Lawrence’s death, but she remembers her grandparents speaking of him with love and respect, and her father spoke of him often.
Epinal American Cemetery
Tablets of the Missing at Epinal American Cemetery, France.
Courtesy American Battle Monuments Commission

Ardennes American Cemetery
Ardennes American Cemetery, Belgium.
Courtesy American Battle Monuments Commission
Harris’ story has been pieced together thus: On October 9, 1944, he and four other soldiers in the 773rd Tank Battalion were clearing German forces from Parroy Forest near Luneville in France. When their tank was struck by enemy fire, Harris and several others were killed. It appeared at the time that the remains of the men killed in the tank blast were neither recovered nor buried at the site; the military declared the three (Harris, Cpl. Judge C. Hellums, and Pvt. Donald D. Owens) dead, but noted their remains were unrecoverable. Nonetheless, a French soldier working at the site in 1946 found some of the tank debris and human remains, which were then buried as unknown soldiers at the Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium.

Fast forward more than a half century and multiple technologies later. In 2003, an ID bracelet and human remains belonging to a Cpl. Judge Hellums were found near the battle site, and a correlation between that discovery and the burials at the Ardennes Cemetery was established. (Credit for putting the many pieces of the puzzle together can be attributed to the persistence of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.) Remains were disinterred, a forensic investigation ensued, and a DNA link to Carolyn Weese, one of Harris’ oldest known living relatives, was confirmed: The year was 2008. Two years later, Harris’ remains—which had traveled from the site in Parroy Forest to the Ardennes American Cemetery to a forensic lab in Hawaii—finally returned to his native West Virginia.

On October 8, 2010, Pfc. Lawrence Nelson Harris was buried in Section 5 of the West Virginia National Cemetery along U.S. Route 50 in Pruntytown with full military honors. Brenda Wamsley says that one of the most gratifying aspects of her uncle’s story is how many people expressed a connection to the young serviceman: She has had numerous reminders that his deeds have not been forgotten. A woman from Elkins who came to the burial ceremony indicated that she had known him while growing up, and an elderly World War II veteran attended the funeral and told Brenda that he had been just three miles away from Harris’ tank when the explosion happened. And, even more surprising, in 2008, a man in Quebec, Canada, attempted to locate the families of Donald Owens and Lawrence Harris to express the gratitude of two French persons with whom he had been in contact!

In 2011, the family was informed that additional remains of the three men in the tank had been discovered; those remains received a group burial at Arlington National Cemetery in July. Mrs. Wamsley described the ceremony as “absolutely beautiful and touching.” She and her husband were able to meet other families from Lawrence’s battalion, and family members were asked to remember the fallen at the funeral home service. At the cemetery, the coffin was transferred from ambulance to a horse-drawn caisson, which took it directly to the gravesite. Even though Harris’ partial remains had been buried at Pruntytown a year earlier, Brenda said she did not feel full closure, that there was something else out there. At Arlington, she said, she finally felt “at peace.”

While no family members remain who have distinct memories of the fallen soldier, Lawrence Harris’ family are pleased that some of his remains are in his home state of West Virginia while some are at Arlington, where he will remembered by an entire nation for making the ultimate sacrifice.

Information compiled from articles in the Charleston Daily Mail, the Fairmont Times West Virginian, the Elkins InterMountain, and the Charleston Gazette; reports from the 90th Division Organization, Inc., and the Associated Press; and interviews with Lawrence Harris’ niece Brenda Wamsley. Article by Patricia Richards McClure.

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