Sometimes the stars come together and mysterious things happen. On the night of Dec. 31, 1944, Company A, 276 Infantry Regiment of the 70th Infantry Division, was keeping watch on the Rhine River near the French village of Neuhaeusel. It was a cold, clear night with an almost full moon. Soldier X-6454 was assigned to a one man foxhole with an automatic rifle (BAR).
Around midnight shots rang out over the Rhine River. At first it was thought that the Germans were celebrating New Year’s but just in case a check of all personal on the line was made. On coming upon X-6454’s foxhole only a bloody helmet was found with a bullet hole through it and a piece of skull.
There was no trace of X-6454. On January 23, 1945, A Missing In Action Telegram was sent to his parents in Juneau, Wisconsin. The 70th Division moved on to counter the last German offensive of the Battle of the Bulge “Operation Nordwind.” It appears that X-6454 was forever lost.
After the war, an attempt was made to find X-6454 and in 1947 his mother offered a reward to the Army to find him. The army could not help. In 1946 the mayor of Iffezheim, Germany, informed the Army Graves Registration Unit that an American soldier was buried near the Rhine River. Iffezheim, Germany, lies right across the Rhine River from Neuhaeusel, France.
The Graves Registration Unit went to the site with a German soldier and local villagers and they dug up a body. The body was but a skeleton. There were no dog tags and no other ID. The body was taken to the American Military Cemetery in Saint-Avold, France and buried with military honors with a simple cross stating “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.” his name was listed on the wall of the missing at Saint-Avold.
X-6454’s father died in 1963 and his mother in 1972. X-6454’s family spoke of him only rarely according to X-6454’s nephew. The nephew, like I, found out that World War II was rarely spoken of by the combatants, including my father. Yet the nephew did not give up.
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In 2014, the nephew notified the Army that he would participate in a meeting for families of MIA soldiers. Both the nephew and his mother (X-6454’s sister) gave DNR samples to the U.S. Army. That, with verbal statements given by two 70th Division comrades in arms of X-6454, there was enough evidence to exhume X-6454’s body from Saint-Avold Cemetery in 2016. X-6454 was returned to Offut Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska. Using modern DNA evidence, the body was positively identified.
The facts of the case are simple. On New Year’s Eve 1944, the Germans were looking for prisoners of war. The patrol came across the Rhine River to get American soldiers to question. The patrol shot X-6454 and took him prisoner.
When the Germans got X-6454 across the river he passed away. Not wishing to leave X-6454 unburied, the Germans enlisted some civilians to help them bury him. The Germans moved, on chased by the American 70th Division. The nephew was notified of the recovery and identification of his uncle by the Army on July 23, 2018.
Pvt. John B. Cummings, no longer body number X-6454, now lies next to his parents in Hazlehurst, Wisconsin. Of the 70th Division, only 11 soldiers remain missing in action. Through the tenacity of John’s family, the hard work of government historian Ian Spurgeon and John’s comrades in arms of Company A, 276 Infantry, 70th Division; Frank Lowry and John Haller, John was returned to his family 74 years after he was killed.
I met the nephew, Mark Hartzheim, briefly at the 70th Division reunion in September of 2018. As always when you want to talk with someone other things need to be done. Mark was still pretty amazed over his uncle’s return. There are currently 72,796 service members (approximately 26,000 are assessed as possibly recoverable) still unaccounted for from World War II. Many are know to rest in the waters where they fought.
The Cummings/Hartzheim families are reunited and John is accounted for. On this Memorial Day weekend we should remember those we have lost and are yet to be found.