Mary Lynn Smith
For more than 70 years, Catherine Tauer has woken to a bedside photograph of the World War II soldier she married in 1943. Her cheerful morning ritual of saying hello to him covered the anguish of not knowing where he was.
The Minnesota man, Gerald Jacobsen, was counted among more than 82,500 U.S. soldiers missing in action since World War II. But no longer.
An Illinois woman used four digits written on the underwear of an unknown U.S. soldier buried in France to identify Jacobsen. After DNA tests confirmed it, Tauer, now 94, is counting the days until his remains return home.
“We tried so hard and for so long,” she said in a recent interview in her Roseville home, tearing up as she spoke. “If I could just see the casket at Fort Snelling, I would be so happy. I wanted to see it before I die.”
She balled her fists and wiped the tears before they fell. The years of not knowing have etched a kind of grief that she can’t erase. “Maybe after the funeral I’ll be better.”
She never found peace at her husband’s memorial marker at Fort Snelling. “I look at it, and I know he’s not there,” she said. “I’m praying to a stone. I want him to be there.”
She was 17 when she fell in love with Jacobsen, who was five years older and her brother’s friend.
“I think he got tired of him and he took to me,” Tauer quipped, setting off a robust laugh as she reminisced at her kitchen table. “He took me to a couple of shows at the time, and that was it.”
The couple didn’t have enough money to get married before the war. Three years later, he was in the Army, writing letters to her nearly every day. “I know you’ll wait for me,” he wrote, vowing he would save himself for her.
Letter after letter he said he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. On furlough, he returned to Minnesota in January 1943, and they married. They dreamed of a big family and growing old together.
“He was just so good to me. No one could ever take his place.”
He returned to duty and his letters kept coming. Three years worth of letters, some of them eight pages long, fill a box and binder. Each are written in neat cursive with endearments of “darling” and “sweetheart” sprinkled throughout; postscripts of longing are added and multiple lines of x’s shower her with kisses at the end.
“P.S. Darling, I love you so much that I will never be happy till I am back in my darling’s arms again.”
Tauer rereads them every now and then. “Sometimes it just makes me so sad. and I’m crying [and] can’t read them anymore. It makes me feel so bad that I had to lose a man so good.”
On May 12, 1944, Staff Sgt. Jacobsen and the rest of Company M of the 134th Infantry Regiment were shipped overseas, arriving in France on July 6. Nine days later, he and another soldier went on an observation mission near St.-Lô. The other soldier’s body was found near the observation post. Jacobsen was listed as missing.
Never giving up
Tauer remembers two Army soldiers delivering the telegram with the news. “I was so broken,” she said. “I never thought he was shot or that he died. I figured he was taken prisoner.”
She believed he would eventually come back to her.
The Army declared him dead a year and a day later. Still, she waited. “You think maybe he’s laying in a hospital somewhere,” she said. “You think of everything, but you don’t think of him dead.”
More than a decade passed before she agreed to marry Ray Tauer, a customer at the tavern where she waitressed.
Her second husband “was all right,” she said. “I didn’t love him like the first one,” and told him straight up: “If [Jerry] comes back, I’m going back with my first husband.
“But he never came back.”
The years never erased the hurt. Even after she remarried, she kept Jacobsen’s photo near her bedside. “It was like he was here with me.”
Her second husband died in 1984. Jacobsen continued to be the love of her life, and her fight to find him continued. She and family called and wrote government officials and politicians. In 2010, the family submitted DNA samples just in case a match eventually could be made.
A clue in four numbers
Researching her own father’s Army records after he died in 1985, amateur historian Roberta Russo, 69, of Palatine, Ill., discovered that 44 men who served in the 35th Infantry Division — the same division her father and Jacobsen served in but at different times — were listed as MIA. On a quest to get information about these men, she filed a Freedom of Information request for all their files two years ago. Jacobsen’s file was one of the first to arrive.
Poring over the once-classified documents, Russo discovered that after Jacobsen went missing, remains identified as 2nd Lt. Alexander MacIvor from the 134th Infantry were buried. Months later, MacIvor was found recuperating in a hospital. The remains buried under his name were reclassified as “Unknown X-481” — one of about 9,500 unidentified soldiers buried since World War II.
A mortuary team compared dental records and other factors in hopes of identifying the soldier, Russo said. The team suggested the remains could belong to Jacobsen but there wasn’t enough physical evidence to make a positive identification, she said.
“Those battles were horrific,” Russo said. Faces and limbs were sometimes blown off. “They did the best they could to ID the soldiers.”
Looking through what little identifying information was listed when the body of X-481 was found, Russo said four digits were printed on the soldier’s underwear: 6991 or 1669, “depending on how you flipped it to read it.”
“Soldiers often wrote the last four digits of their serial number on their clothing, I’m assuming so they got their right clothes back from the laundry,” she said. Russo likely wouldn’t have given much thought to the numbers had they been on a jacket or shirt because soldiers often swap those. But probably not underwear, she said.
She searched databases for matching serial numbers, filtering out everyone but Army soldiers who went missing June through August 1944. “There were only two: Jerry Jacobsen and a pilot who went missing nowhere near St.-Lô,” she said. “So it had to be Jacobsen.”
With the help of Jed Henry, a Wisconsin filmmaker who started a nonprofit to help identify missing soldiers, Russo pushed to confirm her findings. With evidence in hand, the Jacobsen family could request that the remains of the unknown soldier be exhumed and the DNA tested.
How many more?
Jacobsen’s nephew, Brad Jacobsen, is a 62-year-old retired St. Paul police officer who had researched his family’s military history. Six of the eight boys in his father’s family served in World War II and one served in Korea and Vietnam. Three were killed but only Jerry Jacobsen was MIA.
On July 8, 2016, Brad Jacobsen, on the family’s behalf, requested the remains of X-481 be exhumed.
In early June, he knocked on his aunt’s door. Gerald Jacobsen was coming home.
Russo calls this one of her “most meaningful” accomplishments. “I know that it doesn’t make sense, because I never met the family. I never knew Gerald Jacobsen,” she said. “All I did was pick up a file and read it. But it makes you wonder how many more there are if someone just took the trouble to look at it.”
According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, 73,052 World War II service members are still missing. The agency estimates that 26,000 could possibly be recovered
Besides Jacobsen, the remains of three other men who were MIA will return to Minnesota in July, just weeks after World War II Navy sailor and Minnesota native Glaydon Iverson was brought home in May.
“To get five in the matter of six weeks is very unusual,” said Mark Lea, vice president of the Patriot Guard in Minnesota. Last year, one MIA was returned to Minnesota, he said. “I think there’s been a little of a big push to get them found and brought back home.”
With today’s computer and DNA technology, Henry and Russo want to do just that.?“To resolve these cases is not hard,” Henry said. He, Russo and other volunteers have done it in their spare time. “But you have to get around the politics of it.”
On Thursday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar will present Jacobsen’s medals — a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and others — to his widow. A week later, Jacobsen’s great nephew who serves in the Navy will escort the remains to Minnesota, where the Patriot Guard will lead the procession to the funeral home.
Catherine Tauer and the rest of the Jacobsen family want to honor the long-lost soldier by pulling out all the stops, including a missing man formation by World War II fighter planes during the funeral on July 14 at Fort Snelling.
“I just wanted him home,” Tauer said. “I never gave up.”