Son finds his answers in a WWII dog tag


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Walter Reuter III was 10 when he last saw his father.

For years, he didn't know the circumstances of his death -- only that Walter Reuter Jr. had gone missing in action in Germany in October 1944.

Mr. Reuter, an architect from Edgeworth who is now 75, never expected to learn more about what happened to his father, a private in the 9th Infantry Division during World War II.

But that changed when Nancy Fraker of Richmond, Va., began to research her uncle, a staff sergeant who also went missing in action during the war. It turned out her uncle and Mr. Reuter's father likely had died together in battle.

Ms. Fraker's research also helped turn up something else valuable. Mr. Reuter received one of his father's dog tags in the mail earlier this month from a German who had found it using a metal detector in Hurtgen Forest.

For Mr. Reuter, the 1-by-2-inch tag, dangling from a thin metal chain, has spiritual significance. It is a memorial for a family left with no remains and no gravestone. He plans to leave the dog tag to his brother David's son, the only son in the family who will continue the Reuter name.

Mr. Reuter said he has the most vivid memories of his father with him and his siblings -- his sister Robin was 9 and his brother David was 3 at the time. He remembered his father as a charming, relaxed man who used to read books like "Treasure Island" to him.

Losing his father was a cruel blow, he said.

"It was just a big hole in my life. You get a taste of something wonderful, then it's taken away," Mr. Reuter said.

Missing in action

In spring 1944, Walter Reuter Jr. came home from boot camp. After training in Camp Blanding in Florida for two months, he spent about a week with his family, hosting parties for friends and resting at his Bexley, Ohio, home with his wife and three children.

Mr. Reuter said he remembered riding on the train to Pittsburgh, where his father grew up, to stay with relatives.

He recalled his father putting him to bed the night before he headed off to war.

"I remember that I was really inconsolable that he was leaving," Mr. Reuter said. "My emotions were exactly correct, in hindsight."

The 33-year-old Pvt. Reuter was sent to Germany and went on to fight in what would be one of the longest and most brutal battles of World War II -- the Battle of Hurtgen Forest. Fought from September into February over cold, wet ground in the heavily forested area near Germany's border with Belgium, the battle claimed 33,000 U.S. casualties and 28,000 German casualties.

In October 1944, Pvt. Reuter was sent on a mission to attack two German pillboxes -- types of concrete bunkers used to protect soldiers from enemy fire.

He and three other men from Company C left with instructions to destroy the bunkers in Raffelsbrand crossing, about 5 miles southeast of Aachen, Germany. The Germans fought back, and the company was hit with mortar and small arms fire.

Pvt. Reuter and his three comrades never returned from their mission. They were reported missing in action on Oct. 14, eight months after Pvt. Reuter had enlisted. The Army could not search for his remains right away because of continued enemy activity. It found no listings for Pvt. Reuter or the other men on his mission in German prisoner of records. In 1945, the Army had still not found the men and a major general sent a letter to Pvt. Reuter's wife, Roberta, informing her that her husband was presumed to be dead.

Still hoping

In a return letter dated Sunday, April 14, 1946, she wrote:

"Would you mind terribly if I aired some of my bitterness to you? My husband was such an exceptional man."

Mrs. Reuter pleaded for the Army to continue helping her search for her husband or his remains. "As they did not seem to know any more about it in 1945 than they did in 1944," Mrs. Reuter wrote, "I am still hoping that he might be alive somewhere."

The only possibility, she wrote, was that he would have amnesia. Could the major general tell her if there were any unidentified amnesia patients? Did any soldiers in his platoon come back from the mission?

And did the War Department ever consider that the dead soldiers -- the forgotten ones, remembered just once a year on Memorial Day -- deserved to come back home alive and be honored with the same medals and college educations and privileges that returning soldiers benefitted from?

They had offered her a flag.

In the same letter she wrote that at first, she felt indignant about thinking she could exchange her husband for a flag.

"But maybe the children would think the army really thought something of their Daddy if you sent it," she wrote. "So please consider this a request."

On Jan. 8, 1952, the Army wrote its last letter to Mrs. Reuter to say it never found her husband's remains.

Still, Mrs. Reuter, who never remarried, tried to find out what happened to her husband. She found a Walter Reuter in Mexico who had become a photographer. When her daughter, Robin, lived in Acapulco, she visited Walter Reuter's widow. The widow had pictures of her Walter Reuter, but it wasn't the Pvt. Reuter who went missing in Hurtgen Forest.

Mrs. Reuter died 11 years ago, without ever knowing what had happened to her husband.

The search for a dog tag

Three years ago Nancy Fraker's sister pulled an old picture out of her attic. Their uncle, Staff Sgt. Raymond "Carlyle" Blanton, smiled at the camera in his pressed uniform. Sgt. Blanton went missing in action on Oct. 14, 1944.

Finding the photo made them think about their uncle. He was 19 when he went missing, and it devastated Ms. Fraker's mother.

Ms. Fraker, 58, decided to search for her uncle's remains. She obtained her uncle's personnel records and found he was killed during a mission he led near Raffelsbrand crossing in Hurtgen.

She contacted the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, hoping to find more information. The organization informed her that during a mission to Hurtgen Forest to research the area, members had met with two German World War II enthusiasts familiar with the former battleground.

One of them, Hans-Peter Kotzan, had found Pvt. Reuter's dog tag in 2004, JPAC officials wrote. But Mr. Kotzan refused to give JPAC the dog tag when he met with them in 2007.

Mr. Kotzan said he was part of a small group that searches the forest almost every weekend with metal detectors in search of historical objects.

While on her own trip to Berlin, Ms. Fraker visited Hurtgen Forest and went to the spot where the dog tag had been found.

"When we arrived at the GPS coordinates we were greeted by a makeshift monument which was built by a local German man who had found Pvt. Reuter's dog tags in '04," she wrote on a website tribute to Sgt. Blanton. "He'd built this monument from rocks, metal shards and pieces of cement from an exploded pillbox. There aren't words to describe this event. It still seems surreal."

Ms. Fraker said she began to wonder what had happened to Pvt. Reuter. So she wrote his son telling him about the dog tag.

"My only motivation was to share whatever stories he might know about his father's demise," Ms. Fraker said.

Ms. Fraker said learning more about his father's death had a huge impact on Mr. Reuter.

"He laughed and he cried at the same time," she said.

In its letter, JPAC suggested Mr. Reuter write to Mr. Kotzan himself. Mr. Reuter wrote to him in May, and he included a picture of his father.

He received the dog tag May 18 with a note that read, in German, "I will return the identification tag of your dad in hope that it will bring you joy," adding that he had researched Pvt. Reuter.

"I wrote the letter and I was afraid he was seeing dollar signs," Mr. Reuter said.

But that wasn't the case.

"He just sent [it]."

Mr. Reuter hopes he can visit Hurtgen Forest some day and see the memorial for his father. Ms. Fraker still hopes she can find her uncle's remains.


Lindsay Carroll: lcarroll@post-gazette.com .


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