Unidentified and unknown since he disappeared in the Hurtgen Forest Battle during WWII in Germany, Private 1st Class Leslie Shankles was finally laid to rest by surviving relatives, including Joyce Stratford of Pratt, on October 24, 2018 in Fort Scott. A DNA sample from Stratford's cousin, requested in the summer of 2017, was the family's first notification that their long-lost soldier might have been found.
Pratt resident Joyce Stratford never met Private 1st Class Leslie Shankles, but she gets emotional talking about a trip she took to Fort Scott on October 24, 2018 to help her family members lay to rest the recently identified remains of the WWII soldier who was a lost soul for so many years.
"It was an absolutely amazing experience," she said. "We went to the U.S. Fort Scott National Military Cemetery and they rolled out the red carpet for the event."
Stratford's cousin, Larry Shankles of Topeka, provided a DNA sample just last summer, on request from the U.S. Army, which was used to identify his uncle, Leslie Shankles, who had been listed as missing in action since October 14, 1944 after a battle in the Rafflesbrand Forest in Germany.
"Our families were always close," Stratford said. "As children growing up we always heard the stories about Larry's uncle. His mother and my mother were sisters, so we got together on all the holidays. We heard how Larry's father, Paul, and his brother, Leslie, grew up near Garland, a tiny town near Fort Scott. They were outstanding baseball players in high school. Paul was the pitcher and Leslie his catcher. After Leslie disappeared, Paul never played baseball again. It was devastating for him to lose his brother."
Stratford and her husband, Jim Stratford, visited the European war theater just a few years ago, looking for a place where Jim's father, Jess Stratford, Jr., was said to have etched his name in a large cavernous cave during WWII. Though they spent several days in the German cave, assisted by five military researchers, they were unable to located the location of the signatures. After returning to their home in Pratt, they were notified several months later that the names had been found and they received a picture of the historic military site.
"The whole time we were there, we had no idea that we were so close to where Leslie Shankles’ body had been discovered," Stratford said. "I had no idea that there was a small village close by there, Margraten, Netherlands, where a church cemetery had a wall with his name inscribed, listed as missing in action from that time."
Stratford said, after her family was notified of the DNA match of her cousin with Shankles' remains, they also found out that a gold rosette was placed on the church wall in the Netherlands where his name appeared among the missing from WWII.
"To know he has been found and identified now, it's a bittersweet satisfaction," Stratford said. "My cousin Larry's mother and father are gone, as are his grandparents, and they never knew what happened to their son and brother. That's the sad part. But it was very emotional and exciting for us to be part of laying his remains to rest two weeks ago."
Stratford said her cousin is not able to communicate well because of Parkinson's disease, so she helped supply much of the information about the life and service of Leslie Shankles to media requests and officials planning the recent ceremony at Fort Scott.
"We all met at the VFW there before going to the cemetery," she said. "There were many medals presented to Larry in honor of his uncle, posthumously. And then there was a procession of the Patriot Guard, local fire department, law enforcement and county sheriff's officers from the funeral to the cemetery. They were all there to pay their respects. It was just fantastic."
According to military officials, Shankles was killed during a battle in the Hurtgen Forest in 1944. The battle raged for several months with thousands of American soldiers killed. Shankles body was not discovered until three years later when a local woodsman found the remains, still accompanied by a tattered American uniform. The find was classified as unknown and the family never heard any word about their loved one until in the summer of 2017, when Larry was contacted to provide a DNA sample.
But now he has finally been laid to rest.
Joyce Stratford, her sister Peggy Emmerson, and cousin Larry Shankles continue to remain close and all three were there to support each other during the funeral of their long-lost WWII veteran two weeks ago in Fort Scott.