MIA for more than 70 years, World War II soldier's remains finally brought home to Missouri

Sara Karnes
Springfield News-Leader

It took more than seven decades, but a World War II soldier is finally home.

U.S. Army Private James J. Cansler Jr. was reported missing in action on Dec. 19, 1944 after his unit was involved in the Battle of Hürtgen Forest in Vossenack, Germany. 

The 21-year-old and other members of his company worked to secure a road and a portion of the forest. He was last seen at the edge of the woods and was reported missing that day.

U.S. Army Private James J. Cansler Jr. was classified as "non-recoverable" in 1951.

Cansler’s remains went unidentified for years until January 2020. He was finally laid to rest Wednesday at the Missouri State Veterans Cemetery.

Cansler — who was often lovingly referred to only as “Junior” — was born April 11, 1923 near Bolivar to James and Belle Cansler, according to a Greenlawn Funeral Home.

Joining the military May 31, 1944 in Fort Leavenworth, Cansler was assigned to Company, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, 8th Infantry Division in the European Theater. He was later awarded the Bronze Star Medal as well as the Purple Heart.

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The journey home

After World War II ended, the American Graves Registration Command worked to track down the remains of American service members throughout Europe. 

Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, more than 400,000 died during the war with about 79,000 unaccounted for. More than 72,000 Americans remain unaccounted for from WWII, according to the DPAA, or Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

U.S. Army Private James J. Cansler Jr. was reported missing in action Dec. 19, 1944 after his unit was involved in the Battle of Hürtgen Forest in Vossenack, Germany.

The registration command searched the Hürtgen Forest between 1946 and 1950 but could not find Cansler. He was classified as “non-recoverable” in 1951.

A set of unidentified remains were found in a minefield north of Vossenack in 1946. The accounting agency believed it could be Cansler, and the remains were buried at Ardennes American Cemetery in 1950. 

The remains were disinterred for further study in 2018. Scientists at the Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska used dental, anthropological evidence and DNA from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System to confirm Cansler’s identity Jan. 29, 2020.

Cansler’s name was already listed on the Tablets of the Missing at the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten. Now that his remains have been accounted for, a rosette will be placed next to his name.

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Final resting place at Missouri State Veterans Cemetery

U.S. Army Private James J. Cansler Jr., a World War II veteran, is carried by an honor guard into the committal shelter at the Missouri Veterans Cemetery in Springfield on Wednesday, July 7, 2021. Cansler was reported missing in action on Dec. 19, 1944 after his unit was involved in the Battle of HŸrtgen Forest in Vossenack, Germany. His remains were unidentified until January 2020.

Before the procession arrived Wednesday at Missouri State Veterans Cemetery, Mike Shores was standing in the shade of the committal shelter. Having driven 50 miles from Lockwood to attend the morning’s burial, Shores tries to go to as many burials of found military members that he can.

“As long as they keep having them, I’ll keep going till I die,” Shores said. “There’s not many of them left… I owe them.”

Members of the Honors Guard, Warriors Watch Riders and veterans with the VFW were also present to honor Cansler. 

Gary Gilmore, retired senior chaplain for the Missouri National Guard, shared details about Cansler along with information regarding his final battle.

“The Battle of Hürtgen Forest was the longest battle of World War II and lasted from September 19 of 1944 until February 10 of 1945,” Gilmore said. “It was designed to put pressure on Germany and to crack the Siegfried Line.”

Unbeknownst to the Allies, Adolf Hitler was moving his forces around and thus began the Battle of the Bulge that Christmas, Gilmore said.

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A military honor presents U.S. Army Private James J. Cansler Jr's. nephew  Jimmy Keith with the flag from his casket at the Missouri Veterans Cemetery in Springfield on Wednesday, July 7, 2021. Cansler was reported missing in action on Dec. 19, 1944 after his unit was involved in the Battle of HŸrtgen Forest in Vossenack, Germany. His remains were unidentified until January 2020.

“I wonder if Junior would have ever realized that Germany and Japan would be the anchors of democracy and freedom in the modern world,” Gilmore said. “God took something very evil, and through the efforts of (Cansler) and many others like him, brought something good.”

Among the handful of people in attendance was Cansler’s nephew, Jimmy Keith. After receiving the folded flag that laid atop Cansler’s coffin, Keith spoke with the News-Leader.

“I was very glad to get Junior home finally,” Keith said, having emailed the Army about working to identify his uncle’s remains and being notified that the records had been lost. “I wish this could’ve happened when Mom and his brother were still here.”

Keith grew up hearing one story about Junior and it had to do with cars.

“There was supposed to be something so much better about a ’37 Ford than a ’32 Ford,” Keith said. “Junior and my father both had a ’32. They traded them for a ’37. Them, my mother and my sister, who was just a newborn, left for California. The ’37 blew up somewhere in Kansas.”

The remains of U.S. Army Private James J. Cansler Jr., pictured left with brother Laymon, were identified Jan. 29, 2020.

The family camped behind a gas station until they could rebuild the vehicle and continued their trek to the West Coast. Keith said they returned to the Midwest when the war started, and Junior joined the Army.

Following a volley salute and taps, Cansler was laid to rest among fellow World War II soldiers at Missouri State Veterans Museum.

Cansler's survivors include nephews Keith and Jerry Rogers, as well as other family and friends.

Sara Karnes is an Outdoors Reporter with the Springfield News-Leader. Follow along with her adventures on Twitter and Instagram @Sara_Karnes. Got a story to tell? Email her at skarnes@springfi.gannett.com.