When Iain Walker visited the crash site of his grandfather’s WWII bomber in Germany with his wife last year, the feeling was like nothing he’d experienced before.
He had just spent five years taking leads and doing research, but had no luck narrowing down the location. Then, Germany’s Uwe Benkel — a man who looks for missing aircraft and airmen throughout Europe — got involved. Within a year, he was showing Walker around.
“We engaged on this amazing trip detailing all of that,” Walker said. “We walked the crash site, metal-detected it and came back with parts of the plane. I told him that my grandfather had hidden in a hayloft on a neighboring farm, he located the farm, we went there and we interviewed an eye witness of the crash. It was a remarkable trip.”
After that, Walker, 45, promised Benkel that he’d try his best to make every other search of his just as remarkable.
And he has. For the last few months, the Niskayuna native and his children have assisted Benkel and his Arbeitsgruppe Vermisstenforschung team (translation: Research Group for the Missing) in several of his attempts at returning U.S. dog tags and metals to their respective owners’ families. When Benkel discovers a new tag, he ships it over to Walker and his family — including his two 10- and 12-year-old children, Olivia and Jack — and the crew look on Ancestry.com, Facebook and other platforms to track down members of the vets’ families or the soldiers themselves.
He’s also begun to purchase tags on Ebay, in an effort to return them to their respective owners. So far, they’ve been able to successfully complete six “projects” — with tags going back to families in New Hampshire, Kentucky and even to a WWII vet in Las Vegas.
“We’ve been very lucky and fortunate to make contact relatively easily,” Walker said. “I don’t think there’s one family so far that we haven’t been able to find. And there’s information you can find from these tags; there’s some great military sites as well.”
Walker said their first success story was with Peter Magliocco, a vet now living in Vegas who proudly saw his tag come through the mail after it was found at a construction site.
“I sent him a letter,” Walker said. “Instantaneously, he called me and said, ‘That’s mine.’ It’s a great feeling. It’s very satisfying. I explain this to my children as well. These are little pieces of history. These belong to their respective families.”
Walker’s kids understand that “these are things they have to give back,” he said. And they get just as excited as him with the projects.
“I like to look and hold these old items and help to return them to their families because it’s important history,” Olivia said.
One of these projects was a bracelet found in Bitburg, Germany, belonging to Air Force veteran Howard Kerbaugh, who was stationed there between 1953-56 during the Korean War. Kerbaugh’s family was excited about the find, Walker said, and Olivia and Jack helped their father work on a plaque to go alongside the bracelet when they eventually return it in person.
“We look at the map, we look at the pictures of the people,” Walker said. “We go through the emails together and go to the post office together. To the degree that they can at their age, they find it satisfying.”
For Walker, all of his deliveries — also including those to the families of Kentucky resident George Bryant and Pennsylvania’s George Hunter — are really just volunteer work, but he knows the gravity of what they can mean to a family or vet.
“Delivering the dog tag to the Hunter family has been my favorite part of this project because I got to meet new people and visit a city I hadn’t before,” Jack said.
Walker always asks for photos of the vets or any information families can provide. For him and his kids, seeing families tell the stories and being able to look at the faces of these heroes makes it all worth it.
“I’m very, very interested in my own family history,” Walker said. “Those are things that are so unique and important, like ‘Why should somebody else have it’ or ‘Why should it be thrown away?’ We should make efforts to return those types of things to the family members.”