March 18, 2002 12:00 PM

On the morning of Dec. 16, 1944, as German forces launched what would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge, the biggest land battle ever fought by U.S. troops, Pvts. Vern Swanson and Jack Beckwith had no idea they were in the grip of history. All they knew was that they were cold, scared and weary of marching through the Ardennes Forest (along the border of Belgium and Germany) under fierce artillery fire. The third member of their gun crew, Pvt. Saul Kokotovich, had been killed the night before. At dawn, Swanson, then 21, and Beckwith, 20—midwestern college boys who had become fast friends as soldiers in the U.S. Army’s 99th Division—were griping about their frozen feet. Suddenly, recalls Swanson, “a shell fell between us.” Knocked out by the blast, he awoke to find Beckwith dead in the snow.

Swanson and other survivors barely had time to bury fallen comrades before retreating. As they dug shallow graves, marking them with dog tags hung on sticks and bayonets, Swanson vowed to return someday and recover his friend’s remains.

For close to 60 years, he struggled to keep his promise, eventually launching an international effort to find bones buried in a forgotten corner of a vast woodland. Against steep odds, he succeeded last April—and later this year, the families of Beckwith and Kokotovich will finally give their loved ones a proper burial. “The man is one in a million,” Kokotovich’s sister Mary Maisel, 79, says of Swanson. Adds Beckwith’s half sister Mary Anderson, 58: “His dedication and loyalty are unreal.”

To Swanson, now 78, the search was as much a matter of duty as serving his country had been. “The idea of leaving a body behind,” he says, “you just didn’t do it.” After returning to college in Ames, Iowa, in 1946 with a chestful of medals—including Purple Hearts for three combat wounds—one of the first calls he made was to the Army, asking for the location of Beckwith’s grave. He was shocked to learn that no one knew. “I thought bodies were always recovered,” says Swanson. In fact, the military quit looking for most World War II dead in 1951.

Swanson got on with his life, earning a degree in civil engineering from Iowa State University in 1948 and marrying Mary Elizabeth Ganser, now 74, the following year. The couple moved to the Chicago suburb of Deerfield, Ill., where they still live. They raised four sons—Charles, 48, a computer analyst; William, 46, an industrial engineer; Don, who died at 22 in 1979; and Jeffrey, 43, a chimney sweep. Swanson designed roads and bridges from Spain to Pakistan. But he never forgot Beckwith, an all-state football guard at North Dakota’s Jamestown College whom he describes as “a boy of very high principles.” He kept in touch with his friend’s mother, Verlie Ohnstad, until her death in 1997.

Over the decades, Swanson wrote countless letters to Army buddies in hopes of locating Beckwith’s resting place. And in the late ’80s, after entering semiretirement, he began to focus on the quest. He traveled to Washington, D.C., to search archives and collect aerial maps of the Ardennes. He interviewed fellow veterans, several of whom sent handmade charts showing everything from the locations of fences to the types of trees in the area. “As a city boy,” says Swanson, “I wouldn’t know the difference between a pine and a fir.”

Swanson’s most important ally, though, turned out to be a man born nearly 20 years after World War II ended. Air Force vet Bill Warnock, 37, is a freelance writer who became intrigued with battle sites after encountering a group of World War II veterans when he was stationed in Germany in 1984. “Meeting them put a human face on the war,” says Warnock, who was convinced that bodies of soldiers could still be found in the Ardennes. To do the finding, he recruited a team of four Belgian “diggers”—searchers equipped with metal detectors who combed the woods for artifacts to sell or collect—including railroad worker Jean-Louis Seel, 39, a hobbyist from Verviers. “In 1984 we found our first body, a German soldier,” says Seel. “In 1988 we found our first American soldier.”

Swanson heard of that discovery, contacted Warnock and traveled to Belgium in 1990. Using Swanson’s maps and charts, Warnock was able to direct his men to within 30 yards of Beckwith’s likely grave site. That wasn’t close enough, however. “The 30 yards,” Warnock says, “might as well have been 30 trillion miles.” Digging for years, the men unearthed shoes, bayonets and two bodies—but none of Swanson’s comrades.

Still, he never lost hope. The only child of Charles, a civil engineer, and homemaker Ann, Swanson lost his father to TB at age 4 and grew up poor in Chicago. (His mother died in 1981.) Having survived a hard childhood and the travails of war, he was not easily discouraged. His steadfastness was rewarded on April 17, 2001, when Seel, who had begun digging in a previously unexplored area after tripping over an old grenade, left a message on his answering machine: “I got good news!”

Swanson returned the call. “We found the remains of Jack and Saul,” Seel told him. (A third GI, David Read, was also found nearby.) Weeping with joy, Swanson phoned Kokotovich’s sister Mary Maisel and Beckwith’s half brother Sam Ohnstad. “We were elated,” says Ohnstad, 68. “It’s the end of a chapter.”

Months later, Seel attended the annual reunion of the 99th Division at Fort Mitchell, Ky. He approached Maisel carrying a gold signet ring he had found beneath Kokotovich’s rotted glove. “I said, ‘I have something for you,'” Seel recalls. “She began to cry.”

Today the bodies are at the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, where they were sent for tests to confirm their identity. Maisel says her family plans to inter Kokotovich in a U.S. military cemetery in Belgium in June. Beckwith’s relatives haven’t decided whether to bury him in Belgium or North Dakota. Wherever the funeral takes place, Vern Swanson will be invited. Says Ohnstad: “We think he’s a hero.”

Nick Charles

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