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Every community has old or abandoned structures that we pass every day without giving a second thought. Sometimes the exterior of a particularly grand building might hold our attention long enough to wonder “I wonder what that was?” and then on we go. Sometimes it is worth our while to stop and look, and perhaps do a little homework to answer that question.

On a recent episode of Stranger Than Fiction Historian Chris Hartley related the story of his relative “Pete” Lynn, who, as an Army GI, gave his life in Europe during World War II. Hartley’s The Lost Soldier tells the story of Pete Lynn’s service and death, but just as importantly it tells us the story of Private Lynn’s family and community.  It tells the story of the details that don’t get into history books.  Sure, a telegram was delivered at the door.  What happened next? What is the story of the neighbors, co-workers, and extended family?  What came after the telegram?  How did Private Lynn finally get home?

One question that Hartley had the intuition to track down was on a mailing label. Private Lynn’s personal effects were preserved by his family in the box they were shipped in. The box still had the mailing label – 607 Hardesty Avenue, in Kansas City, Missouri. What was at that address in Kansas City? What was the place where the lost soldier’s belongings were “processed?”

Having grown up in Kansas City I travelled Independence Avenue, the principal route between “the city” and the neighboring town of Independence, many times. The route is a major thoroughfare and always quite busy. The wise motorist has little opportunity or inclination to gaze at the dirty urban landscape passing swiftly by.  However, the massive monolith at Hardesty is one of those buildings that briefly catches the eye. Like many other early 20th Century public buildings it combines a look of soulless monstrosity with subtle Modernist lines and decoration. It is worth a second look.

Chris Hartley discovered that the “Hardesty Federal Complex” was, during World War II, the Army’s quartermaster depot charged with sifting and sorting the personal effects of every soldier killed in action, from Morocco to New Guinea, and from the Germany to Okinawa. Every day thousands of Federal workers went about their jobs carefully sorting through the possessions of the dead. They cleaned blood from broken watches, examined mud-soaked letters, or prudently removed pornographic materials.  They were guided by the mission of trying to decide, artifact-by-artifact, which items might provide some solace to loved ones, and which might hurt more than help. Each of these Federal workers must have felt an intense responsibility to the survivors, and to the soldiers.

The principal building of the Hardesty Federal Complex is now a private storage warehouse.  Much of the rest of the campus is now vacant and gone to rot as the government works on remediating environmental problems resulting from many of the other industrial uses the site had served. What does Hardesty Federal Complex Look Like Today?

Thanks to Chris Hartley, those who drive past the monolith on Independence Avenue might take a moment to think of the painful work of compassion that went on in that building.

— Bjorn Skaptason

Watch Chris Hartley on Stranger Than Fiction: