How did you become interested in lost Dog Tags?
The amazing story of my Great Uncle Angelo S. Viale's lost WWII dog tag and my subsequent involvement in returning other lost WWII tags, begins in California, on the other side of the world from Munda on New Georgia Island in the Solomon Islands, where Uncle Angelo’s dog tag was found.
Early in December, of 2006, I posted a message on the internet message board for King City High School, in my home town of King City, California in Monterey County. My very good friend from high school, Alex Alexander had passed away in 1998 and I offered to share old pictures I still had of Alex with anyone who was interested. I got one response from a man named Joey Roberts. It turned out that we’d both attended King City High School, had mutual friends in common, but had never met until Joey responded to my post about our beloved mutual friend, Alex.
We began corresponding and reminiscing about what a great friend Alex had been to both of us. Alex Alexander was one of those truly special human beings who touched the lives of others without even trying. He had an infectious smile and generosity of heart that is not easily forgotten. It is fitting that reminiscing about him with Joey was the first step that led me to begin volunteer work that touches the lives of others and brings joy and healing to many veterans and their families.
During further correspondence with Joey, he revealed that he is an Army Ranger and had just returned from Afghanistan. I was impressed with his career, since it takes a special brand of person to become an elite Army Ranger. We began talking about our relatives that had served in the military. As we exchanged stories, I told him the little I knew about my Uncle Angelo’s WWII days. At that time, I didn’t even know the name of Uncle Angelo’s unit and my knowledge of WWII was pretty much limited to Hitler and the Holocaust, subjects that had been covered in high school and college.
The only thing I knew for sure was that he had served in the South Pacific and had been awarded several medals for heroism. Uncle Angelo’s wife, Annie, had the medals framed and hanging on the wall, so I’d grown up seeing them and always paid attention to them as a kid, because they were so pretty! I told Joey he’d been awarded the Medal of Honor, which turned out not to be true. It is hard to believe as I look back on it now, but at the time, my knowledge of military awards was so limited that I was unaware that the Medal of Honor is the highest honor a soldier can receive. Joey was so impressed when I told him that Uncle Angelo had been awarded the M.O.H. that I started to worry that I had unknowingly given him false information. Just to verify things, I called my parents to get my facts straight. Lucky for me, both of my parents used to teach history at K.C.H.S., and their amazing brains retained all the facts and stories about Uncle Angelo. They corrected me, saying that he’d been nominated for the Medal of Honor, but had been awarded the second, third and fourth highest honor, instead: the Distinguished Service Cross [ read citation ], Silver Star, and Bronze Star. When I corrected myself and relayed what my parents told me, Joey was very impressed, saying:
“You and your family have a lot to be proud of. It's amazing how a person's character can be defined forever in a single moment or action. I guarantee that awards like the DSC, Silver Star and Bronze Star were all earned and then some.”
He couldn’t have known it at the time, but his words set in motion an amazing course of events that ultimately led to my complete dedication to returning lost WWII dog tags to their rightful owners. Thanks for being such an inspiration Joey, and for serving our country with distinction. Note: after this story was written, Joey was sent to Iraq. While out on patrol, his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. Joey was the only one hurt at the time and was hospitalized for shrapnel wounds to his head and torso. He is still recovering from the long term effects of his head injuries. Sadly, his team went out without him the very next day and was hit by another roadside bomb. Two of his team members were killed, two others were permanently disabled.
After these email exchanges with Joey, I began researching what happened to Uncle Angelo during the war. On a whim, and not really expecting to get a single result, I ran a Google search on him. To my complete amazement, Google returned with a single hit: an article in an internet edition of Military Magazine. It was written in February of 2005 by WWII Navy Veteran Joseph E. Gunterman of Waterbury, CT and it was titled Lost Dog Tags Recovered. (Link to Military Magazine article). Mr. Gunterman gave his address and phone number and a then a list of 18 dog tags that had been found on Munda. Fourteenth down on the list was:
|Angelo S. Viale
39010759, T42, AB
3124 Alhambra Ave.
Reading his name on that list was an unforgettable moment! it is hard to describe how I felt when I saw his name. It was a mixture of pure joy, complete disbelief, and profound sadness because I suddenly missed him intensely. After getting over the initial shock, I called my mom, dad, and sisters and told them the amazing news. We all cried, because finding the tag caused us to begin reminiscing about Uncle Angelo. After talking things over with my family, I called Mr. Gunterman. He was very surprised to hear from me, because he’d published the article almost 2 years before, with no responses forthcoming. I was the first person to ever call him about the dog tags. I sent him verification of my relationship to Uncle Angelo and he wrote a letter to his friends in Munda. In exchange for the dog tags, he also sent money and a package containing several hundred dollars in gifts. When I offered, he refused to allow me to send him any money to reimburse him. In the letter, he also requested that the islanders send him any other tags they had, so the two of us could work together to return them. The money and gifts he sent were more than sufficient to cover the going rate for dog tags about 100 times over. Joe Gunterman is a very generous and honorable man. (Note: it is not unusual for the locals in the Solomon Islands to expect to be paid about $10 U.S.D. for turning over the dog tags they’ve found. Pacific Wrecks and other independent volunteers that we work with pay the money, but the cost is never passed on the veteran or family.)
Unfortunately, Mr. Gunterman’s island friends seemed to “take the money and run”, because he never got a reply from them. I hold out hope that I will eventually be put in touch with the person who is holding the tag on Munda. If anyone reading this knows someone on Munda who can check into the tags from Mr.Gunterman’s list, I would be very grateful if you could email me.
How did Angelo’s dog tag affect you and your family?
The best thing to come out of finding out about Uncle Angelo’s tag was reuniting with the Viale side of my family. Right after reading the article, I called up the rest of my extended family to tell them the good news. My mom’s brother, Jerry Luthin, put me in touch with Uncle Angelo’s son, Bob, daughter, Maggie, and their kids, Suzie, Cindy and Rebecca. As a child, I had spent many good times with my cousins Suzie, Cindy, and Rebecca, but we had lost touch over the years. Finding out about Uncle Angelo’s tag was the inspiration we all needed to make more of an effort to keep in touch. We now communicate regularly and are becoming a family again.
After experiencing the positive impact Uncle Angelo’s dog tag had on our family, I felt an overwhelming desire to pass that joy on to other families. If I am being honest, it became quite an obsession. I couldn’t think of or do anything else. My house fell apart around me and I spent endless hours on the computer and the phone. I felt driven to do something for the veterans and their families. At the age of 33, I had finally found my true calling in life. My wonderful family was, and continues to be, very patient and supportive of my new occupation.
After doing some internet searches and realizing that hundreds of other tags were still being found in the South Pacific, I contacted Keithie Saunders from the U.S. Consulate in the Solomon Islands. After telling her my story and expressing my desire to help other veterans and their families, she put me in touch with John Innes. John is a Guadalcanal Historian and businessman who sometimes finds, but mostly purchases tags from locals for about $10 U.S.D. in order to return them to families. Even though I was a complete stranger contacting him out of the blue, John was willing to give me a chance and entrusted me with the task of researching a few tags in the beginning of our email acquaintance in February, 2006. I was able to track down the veterans/families from the information on the dog tags and John promptly sent the tags home. We have been working together ever since.
How did you research dog tags and find vets or their families?
Learning to do this research has been a process of trial and error. The more mistakes and wrong turns I make, the more I learn. I’ve also had a lot of help along the way from kind librarians, historians, and members of the bulletin boards at ancestry.com.
My research skills were pretty much non-existent when I began this project until I read an article about Andrea Avery, a genealogist who had found the family of Darrel Thorsted, a man who survived the Bataan Death March, but died of his injuries while in a P.O.W. camp. She helped a woman who’d found his dog tag in the Philippines to return it to his family 53 years later. I called up Denise Gamino, the reporter from TX who had written the story, and she put me in touch with Andrea. Andrea and I spoke for an hour that day, and she continued to mentor me via email, teaching me how to use genealogical resources like census records and obituaries to find veterans or their surviving family members. Andrea, if you ever read this, thank you from the bottom of my heart! If it wasn’t for you, I’d probably still be stumbling around on the internet like a blind elephant. To read the article about the return of Darrel Thorsted’s dog tag. You can also visit Andrea’s web site FamilyTreeHunt.com.
I usually use ancestry.com, WWIImemorial and NARA online archives of military records. One invaluable tool that I use is www.ancestry.com. I have to say a special thank you to my Aunt Peggy Babcoke for allowing me access to her ancestry.com account to do my research. Some tags take only minutes or hours to trace, and some take months of effort. Every once in a while, I have to send away for the veteran’s service records in order to be able to find him, especially if the tag is from the Navy or Marines and the man had a very common name.
One example is WWII Navy veteran John E. Thomas. I had absolutely nothing to go on, because Navy enlistment records are not yet on line at NARA. I ordered his records and found his family within an hour of receiving the response from the National Personnel and Records Center in St. Louis, MO. The records included his date of birth and place of enlistment, which enabled me to finally track him down.
The entire project is a team effort. Everyone involved plays a really important part in getting the tags back home. All in all, this is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. Unfortunately, very few of the veteran’s are still living to enjoy their tag being returned, but I do get to meet their wonderful families, who are usually thrilled to get their veteran’s tag back. Meeting the families and learning the story of the man who wore the tag is the reward I receive at the end of the quest. I will be profiling all of the veterans very soon, so please check back to read their stories.
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