Richard Zuehlke, a Goodwill employee in New York was sorting through boxes when he came across a Purple Heart medal. He had no idea how the medal made its way to Goodwill and ended up in the box, but he knew it did not belong on the sales floor.
On the back of the medal was inscribed the name of the recipient, James Roland. With this Zuehlke and Goodwill took the findings to the internet, hoping to find the owner.
Members of the Patriot Guard Rides heard about the medal, and started looking as well. They located the family of the Purple Heart recipient nearly 200 miles from where the medal was found, in Westover PA. They soon found out that James had been Killed In Action in 1944, while fighting in Anzio, Italy.
The Purple Heart was in good condition and still in its box, said Hastreiter, a regional coordinator for the Veterans’ Recovery Program of the Patriot Guard Riders. The back of the medal bears an inscription, James Edwin Roland, which was a standard tradition in World War II, Hastreiter said. The honor was accompanied by Roland’s picture and an age-yellowed government letter.
“In the Patriot Guard there is so much passion about what we do, that you’re going to do everything you can do to find the missing link,” said Hastreiter, who helps the group track down unclaimed veteran remains so they can be buried with full honors. Their work often involves researching the veteran.
According to standardspeaker.com:
Hastreiter’s research found Roland enlisted in 1943 in Niagara Falls, N.Y., but she could not connect him to any potential relatives in that part of New York. Roland was buried in Westover, Pa., along with his mother, Emma, and father, Kesey. Internet searches showed there were six Rolands living in that part of Pennsylvania. Hastreiter called them all.
One responded: James’s third cousin, Mary Roland Struble. Struble’s grandfather, Clair Roland and James’s father, Kesey were cousins. Kesey died in 1937, she told Hastreiter.
She found U.S. Census information from 1940 that stated James’s mother, Emma, then 60, twin sister, Margaret Eunice, 26, and older brother, Harold C., 36, lived in Hazleton that year in the city’s 11th ward.
Emma was the head of household at the family home, 537 W. First St., and Margaret was employed as a music teacher.
Hastreiter theorized Margaret held onto the Purple Heart and moved to Niagara Falls.
“Was she the one that had the Purple Heart? Did she get married and move to Niagara Falls?” Hastreiter questioned.
Hastreiter called Hazleton City Hall on Wednesday and left a message retrieved by city clerk Lisa Shema, hoping to find out more about the family’s time in Hazleton.
Shema relayed information to police Chief Frank DeAndrea, who alerted local media, asking for relatives of Roland to step forward. DeAndrea, who served in the military, said a Purple Heart, especially one given posthumously, is the highest honor a veteran can receive. In the event of a posthumous honor, the deceased’s medal is granted to the next of kin.
Purple Heart history is extensive, DeAndrea said, noting it is the epitome of the phrase, “Freedom isn’t free.”
In the meantime, Hastreiter said the Patriot Guard will form a motorcycle and passenger vehicle escort to bring the Purple Heart to Struble, who will keep it until a closer related relative steps forward to claim it, she said.
Hastreiter said the escort trip will begin in Buffalo, and the guard will meet with Patriot Guard of Pennsylvania in Dubois. She said though she is hoping for 50 to 60 guard participants, she wouldn’t be surprised if more participate.
“We are used to diligently working and finding families (of veterans) and putting mysteries together,” she said.
Once the family of this fallen Soldier was located, the PGR along with Richard, made the trip to return the Purple Heart to the family.
They rode to Westover Baptist Church in Clearfield County, where Roland is buried.
In a ceremony Sunday, Zuehlke gave the medal to Mary Roland-Struble, a relative of Roland’s.
“They don’t just give the Purple Heart to anybody. You have to do something extraordinary, and he did. He gave his life for his country,” Roland-Struble said.
Here is the video of the medal being returned to the family at the final resting place of the Soldier:
We also want to say thanks to the young man that found the Purple Heart, and knew it was something special to someone. Without him spotting the medal, and knowing what it was, it may have never gotten returned.