The Paper Trail
Is a brittle certificate rolled inside a cardboard tube all that remains of a young man's sacrifice? The reporter who stumbles on it has to find out
By Peter Perl
Sunday, May 30, 2004; Page W08
It was our 22nd winter living in Silver Spring when I finally decided it was time to confront the mystery of the attic. Our house, a two-story white Dutch colonial, was built in 1922, a spacious and sturdy place where we had raised two sons who had graduated from college and gone off into the world. We loved the old house in North Woodside, a tree-lined community only a mile from the District line. After our first six sweltering summers, we had put a central air-conditioning unit up in the attic. After many years of sharing one upstairs bathroom among the four of us, we had refinanced, torn through the roof and added a master bedroom with our own bathroom. We were here to stay.
One major home-improvement task that I'd kept postponing was to face the dark unknown of insulating the attic. Every winter, I would notice that the snow on our rooftop melted sooner than anyone else's on our street, and, particularly now that heating bills were skyrocketing, I knew we needed more attic insulation. But getting up there was always an aggravating adventure because the only entry was through an 18-by-26-inch wooden hatchway in the ceiling of the closet of our son Matt's bedroom. I had to use a six-foot stepladder and contort myself over the closet shelf into the opening, which is eight feet off the floor.
I had rarely ventured up into the dim stillness of the attic, maybe twice a year to change the air-conditioner filter, but I had noticed that the only insulation was scattered tufts of gray mineral wool that looked to be of a 1930s or '40s vintage. At last, this past winter, I decided to lay in thick new blankets of glass-fiber insulation, so I went up with a flashlight and tape measure to size up the job.
Ducking my head in the dark, tight space, I measured and surveyed until my flashlight caught a small pile of litter in the corner, right above Matt's bed. It was a collection of old white curtain rods and a handful of yellowed, crumbling pull-down window shades. There was also a hollow cardboard cylinder that looked like a mailing tube. I gathered up the junk and tossed it down the open hatchway, intended for the garbage. When I finished and climbed back down into Matt's room, as I was shoving the trash into a garbage bag, I looked closer at the mottled cardboard tube. Open at both ends, it was about a foot long with a two-inch diameter, and there were some papers curled up inside.
I shook the tube and reached in to pull out the papers. There was a jumble of eight pieces of cracked, brownish paper that I quickly recognized to be World War II Nazi propaganda sheets, printed in English, crudely illustrated and worded. These were the ugly and sometimes anti-Semitic messages that German warplanes used to drop on Allied troops to urge them to surrender. They included sketches of skeletons and graveyards, warning young GIs that they were destined to die on foreign soil, and asking whether they wouldn't prefer to give up and go home to their wives and girlfriends. I was amazed that these strange old keepsakes had been sitting in my attic for untold decades. But also curled up inside were two larger, heavier sheets of paper that were yellowed and discolored from years of contact with the brown tubing.
I carefully unfurled the first sheet and was stunned to see a brightly colored Purple Heart embossed with a gold profile of George Washington. The Purple Heart certificate had been issued to 2nd Lt. George C. Oertel Jr., Serial # O-1297088, "For Military Merit and For Wounds Received in Action resulting in his death July 11, 1944." The certificate was signed by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Along with it was a larger certificate imprinted with a multicolored bald eagle insignia "In Grateful Memory" of George Oertel, "who died in the service of his country" in the vicinity of North Africa. It said: "He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who have dared to die that freedom might live, and grow, and increase its blessings. Freedom lives, and through it, he lives -- in a way that humbles the undertakings of most men." It bore the signature of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Home alone, I exclaimed aloud an oath of amazement.
WAR HAS ALWAYS LOOMED LARGE in the background of my life. My late father, who was also named George, was the son of poor Hungarian immigrants and had served in World War II as a master sergeant in a noncombat unit stationed at the Panama Canal. After the war, George Perl worked in a bank, got bored and became a private detective in New York City. He was patriotic and Republican, flew an American flag on our front lawn, but was not inclined to talk much about war or politics. Growing up, I saw a few old photos of my dad in his Army uniform, looking trim and sharp, but never heard any personal stories about World War II. Nonetheless, I learned it was a great and noble war to stop fascism, a sacred crusade for which many men and women gave their lives.
But by the time I came of age, America's war was in Vietnam, and for me it became very personal, and more profane than sacred. My most serious fights with my father, including one that nearly came to blows, were about President Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War. In 1969, as a 19-year-old college student, I joined a huge and largely peaceful antiwar mobilization march on Washington and got tear-gassed outside the Department of Justice. Choking and fleeing in panic, I was hit on the head by a tear gas canister. Dazed, coughing and heaving, I remember feeling my hatred for my government's war machine intensifying as I watched Attorney General John Mitchell (later to be disgraced and imprisoned in the Watergate scandal) calmly observing the police attack from an upper balcony at Justice.
On visits home to the New York suburbs, I got into ferocious arguments with my father when I told him I believed America was waging an immoral, self-destructive war, and that I intended never to take part. One night at a restaurant with my parents, I compared the immorality of the Vietnam War to the illegal internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II. My father became furious, vigorously denied that the internments had ever taken place and told me that the myths I was learning in college were "communist." He said he didn't want to see my face anymore and stalked out of dinner into a nearby bar. I drove 200 miles that night back to college and didn't talk to him for months.
Soon after that, caught up in personal turmoil during the swelling antiwar movement, I contemplated dodging the draft and splitting to Canada. I withdrew from college and became draft-eligible, just as the Nixon administration instituted the first draft lottery by birth date. My fate was uncertain that winter of 1969, but I lucked out when my lottery number did not get called, so I ended up back in school.
Ten years later, my first son, Daniel, was born at 6:04 p.m. on a cold November night in Rhode Island. By the time I arrived home alone, it was long past midnight. I sat up drinking bourbon, and the only thing on TV was "Victory at Sea," the stirring World War II documentary series that I used to watch occasionally as a kid. But now, having just held my first-born son in my arms, I was struck as never before with the horror of the grainy black-and-white footage: Every single one of those soldiers had once been a newborn baby just like my Daniel. And their government, for whatever reason, had sent them all off to fight and kill, to bleed and die.
Vietnam, along with America's military ventures in my adult life -- Grenada, Panama, Haiti, Somalia, the 1991 Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq -- had left me feeling sour and ambivalent about the military. But now, standing and holding the Purple Heart certificate of a man who gave his life in a righteous cause, I felt a deeper and more personal connection to military service than I ever could recall, and a need to honor my personal unknown soldier. I wondered how difficult it would be to find out who he was, and whether anyone who knew him would still be alive. I also became intrigued to learn why someone had accidentally, or perhaps intentionally, left behind forever the memory of the life and death of this soldier in my attic.
MY INITIAL CALLS to anyone in greater Washington named Oertel produced no results, but my forays onto the Web yielded a wealth of addresses and telephone numbers to follow. Oertel was a name of Germanic origin, and there were Oertels scattered across America, including a few named George. If there once had been a George Jr. living in our house, perhaps I could find a George Oertel III.
The Washington Post "morgue" of yellowed newspaper clippings from the war era yielded no trace of any Oertels, and so I recruited the aid of a skilled Post researcher, Bobbye Pratt, who was intrigued by my attic find and eager to join the hunt. She provided access to databases that showed dozens of entries for George Oertels, living and deceased, and, remarkably, even a handful of George Oertel III's, with addresses and phone numbers. But from Pittsburgh to Norfolk to Savannah to St. Pete, none of them was my man.
I went to the Montgomery County Courthouse in Rockville to search the land records for our house in large leather-bound books and on microfilm. I discovered in this tedious all-day process that my wife, Nina, and I had been the longest-lasting owners of the house, which had changed hands 12 times since 1940. Our home had been owned by Draisners, Peschels, Millers, Hoppings, Flynns, Reynoldses, Connells, Stines, Thurstons, Saunderses and Solomons. But never by Oertels.
Personnel records of the military would have been the best source of information on my mystery soldier, but I learned from the U.S. Army Center of Military History that an estimated 80 percent of all such World War II records had been destroyed in a devastating fire in 1973 at a records center in St. Louis. And on the slim chance that Lt. George Oertel's personnel file happened to have survived the fire, I would have to first locate a family member to get access to it, under military regulations.
My frustration at the cold trail didn't last long because Bobbye introduced me to a newly available digitized electronic database that had traceable access to The Washington Post dating to the 19th century, and mirabile dictu, she produced copies of a dozen old Post stories with the name of George Oertel, including a Page 1 account on August 1, 1944, under the headline, "7 District Area Men Killed in War, 6 Missing, 7 Wounded." The listing of those who died in action included "Lieut. George Charles Oertel Jr., whose wife, Mrs. Louise Hopping Oertel, lives at 5730 3rd Pl. NW, killed July 11 in Italy."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Love and war: George C. Oertel Jr. and Louise Hopping Oertel on their wedding day in 1943; Louise with George III.