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."
Toward the bottom of the story, The Post reported: "Lieutenant Oertel, 24, a graduate of Gordon Junior High School and Western High School, completed three years of study at George Washington University before his induction. A star outfielder on the university's baseball team, he also played with local baseball clubs such as the Heurich Brewers. Besides his wife, he leaves his father, a Treasury Department employee; a six-month-old son, George C. Oertel 3d, and a brother, Charles Henry Oertel, all of Washington."
The long-dead soldier in my attic finally started to come alive: a star ballplayer from Washington, cut down in his youth, and leaving behind a wife and an infant son, bearing his name, who would now be about 60 years old, wherever he might be.
With the names of his widow, Louise, and his brother, Charles, I redoubled my phone-calling explorations.
"Oh! That's my husband's brother!" exclaimed Lorraine Oertel when I reached her at her apartment in Northwest Washington. Her husband, Charles, had died several years ago, she said, and George's widow, Louise, had long ago remarried and moved to Florida with her baby. Lorraine Oertel, who is 78, told me that she had married into the family after World War II and had never met George or Louise.
"He went overseas when she was pregnant, so he never saw his son," she said. "It was really sad." She continued, "Louise remarried when the child was still very young. It broke my husband's parents' heart when she changed the [boy's] name, because there are not many Oertels in the world."
George Oertel's widow had married a man named Allan Lang and moved away in the 1940s, Lorraine said, but she didn't know where Louise now lived or even whether she and her son were still alive. Lorraine also told me that Louise Oertel's father, Andrew Hopping, had been an Army general during World War II. Only then did it dawn on me that an Andrew Hopping and his wife, Gabrielle, had owned our house. The Hoppings purchased it on May 31, 1945, just after the war ended, and lived there until August 1947. It was during that period that their daughter Louise, widowed with a year-old baby, had probably moved into our house and eventually left behind her husband's keepsakes in the attic.
Lorraine Oertel invited me over to see a scrapbook her in-laws had meticulously and proudly assembled over nearly a decade to memorialize George's considerable schoolboy exploits. At age 16, George Jr. played together with his father, George C. Oertel, 37, on a sandlot baseball team that won the city's Industrial League title. George Jr. grew into a slender but muscular 5-foot-8 speedster, a slap-hitting, left-handed center fielder for the now-defunct Western High School in Georgetown. Oertel led his team to the city championship in 1936, Western's first title in more than a decade. He'd gotten his picture in The Post in 1938 when he was named to the newspaper's All-High School Baseball Team, with a phenomenal .619 batting average, by far the highest in the city.
At the D.C. school system's archives, a 1938 Western High yearbook showed a handsome, dark-haired teenager, "known as 'Orty' by his friends," who was "one of the most active Westerners" in sports, a fraternity and an engineering club. His senior picture is captioned, "Besides all of those various activities, he has two hobbies, chewing gum and redheads, mostly the latter."
Graduating from Western, George Oertel Jr. entered George Washington University on a baseball scholarship in September 1938 in a world that would soon be haunted by war. By the time Oertel started his sophomore year, Adolf Hitler had invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The French and British declared war on Germany that week, but the Americans were staying out of it -- at first. Oertel was studying accounting at GW, where he starred for the college team and entertained the hope of becoming a professional baseball player.
"Oh, yes, Georgie! Very enthusiastic. An outfielder, good base-stealer and a real gung-ho competitor," recalled Eleanor DeAngelis, who served as GW's official scorekeeper in 1939 and 1940 when her late husband coached the team. "He would run like the dickens!" she said, remembering with a laugh how Georgie would often beat out infield hits and then flash her the thumbs-up sign to try to persuade her to score it a hit, rather than an error. DeAngelis said Oertel's family frequently attended games, and Lorraine Oertel said that George often brought his little brother along on the bus for road games. By this point, I'd seen smiling photographs of the two brothers together, and they appeared genuinely affectionate. I pictured George as the kind of older brother it would be easy to idolize.
George Oertel's college education and his baseball career were cut short as Hitler expanded his assault on Europe, and America began to mobilize. In 1940, Congress authorized the then-astronomical sum of $9 billion to begin creation of the fabled "arsenal of democracy," and 20-year-old George Oertel was among the 16 million men who registered for the draft that autumn.
In the summer of 1941, even before Pearl Harbor, Oertel got his draft notice just after finishing his junior year. His family told The Post in a later interview that before George left for his Army induction, he had already talked to Bucky Harris, the manager of the Washington Senators, about trying out for the major leagues after he got back from the war.
MY CONTINUED SEARCHES for George Oertel III and his mother, the former Louise Hopping, were unsuccessful. But after scores of phone calls, I located an Andrew Daniel Hopping who lived near Tampa and who turned out to be the grandson and namesake of Brig. Gen. Hopping. Danny Hopping told me that his Aunt Louise had died about 20 years ago and that he had long ago lost touch with her son, his cousin, who was known not as George but as Sandy. Hopping also said that his Aunt Martha, Louise's youngest sister, was living in Florida, and he offered to contact her to find out how to get in touch with my soldier's son, whose name I now knew was not George Oertel III, but Sandy Lang. Hopping took my phone number and e-mail address, which he said he would try to pass along to Lang.
Meanwhile, I continued my research, following leads from the Oertels' scrapbook, Post clippings, Internet sites and interviews with military historians, all of which yielded some details about the military life of George Oertel. He was inducted into the Army in Richmond on September 25, 1941, and was assigned to Camp Lee, Va., near Petersburg. Once a Revolutionary War battle site, Camp Lee, named for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, had been created as a World War I mobilization and training point. After the war, the camp near the James River had become a state game preserve, but with the outbreak of World War II, the Army hastily rebuilt it as the processing point for hundreds of thousands of new draftees.
It was here that Pvt. Oertel and the other newly inducted men were tested, interviewed, and issued eight pairs of socks, five pairs of drawers and undershirts, two dog tags, two uniforms, a mess kit, a field manual and everything else the Army thought they might need in a world that was exploding into full-blown war stretching from Europe to the Pacific.
Pvt. Oertel was then assigned to infantry training at Camp Croft, S.C., near Spartanburg, where the federal government had relocated more than 250 families and had quickly constructed 674 buildings to house up to 20,000 men at a time for three or four months of basic training. Here, young men who had been farmers, store clerks, factory workers, mechanics, waiters, insurance salesmen and college boys were all thrown together in wooden barracks for a relentless routine of weapons training, military drills, all-night forced marches, Army cuisine and live-fire simulations, in which they had to crawl through mud under barbed wire with machine guns firing overhead.
Here, George Oertel mixed with thousands of other newly minted GIs, including some who later became famous: Among those who trained at Camp Croft were Henry Kissinger, New York Mayor Ed Koch, Sen. Alan Cranston, actor Zero Mostel, broadcaster Mel Allen and bandleader Mercer Ellington, Duke's son, according to several historical Web sites.
Among the thousands training there, Oertel quickly distinguished himself and was selected for noncommissioned officers school at Camp Croft. He completed the course in July 1942, becoming an NCO, or a sergeant. He clearly kept in good shape, winning the camp championship in the 100-yard dash, which he ran in 11.2 seconds while wearing a full Army uniform.
Oertel's leadership must have stood out, because he was chosen to become a commissioned officer, a rank achieved by only one of every 20 draftees in his division.
During more than 12 months of advanced training, Oertel would have had a few chances for much-needed home leave. Soldiers headed to war were granted "pre-embarkation furloughs," and it was during one of these visits back to Washington, possibly for Christmas 1942, that the 23-year-old in his crisp Army uniform met a blond, blue-eyed 19-year-old hometown girl who had recently graduated from Calvin Coolidge High School in Northwest. She was quiet, a bit introverted, and loved to draw elaborate pictures in art class. George and Louise apparently met at a dance at a USO club, according to her sister, Martha Hopping Keith of Bartow, Fla. The big band sounds of Sammy Kaye, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman would have been in the air, along with the excitement of young love in an unfolding, chaotic world.
MY HEART ACTUALLY FLUTTERED when I opened my e-mail at The Post on a Monday morning and saw I had received a message from George "Sandy" Lang. It was a short introductory note saying that his cousin Danny Hopping had told him about "relics" found in the house that used to belong to his maternal grandparents. Lang said he was a big fan of a cable television show called "If Walls Could Talk," which traces the history of long-lost artifacts found in people's homes. "It is unreal that you have found items I would very much appreciate having!" he wrote.
"George Charles Oertel was my biological father and was killed in Italy when I was only six months old, neither of us ever having seen the other, except in photographs. I was born Jan. 8, 1944, at Walter Reed Hospital and given the name George Charles Oertel III . . . I know very little about my biological father, as these things were not talked about in those days. I would very much like to have anything which belonged to my father or mother," who died in 1981 following kidney disease.
"It's amazing!" Sandy Lang exclaimed when I reached him by telephone that day at his home in Altamonte Springs, just north of Orlando. "I was told I had a father that was killed in the war, but I didn't know much because Mom never really talked about it much because she felt it wasn't appropriate." Lang, who had just turned 60 and recently retired from a career in construction and at IBM, said he had learned from his grandparents over the years that his birth father had a been a star athlete and a soldier, but he had few details.
"It surprises me that it was left in the attic," he said of my find. "I imagine it was put up in the attic by my mother, and she didn't want to think about it.
"Since I've retired, I've been thinking more about my family," he said, "how there is so much I don't know about, and I ought to try to study it."
I told him that I had made it my mission to find out as much as I could about his father, and that once I was done, I would come down to Florida to give him all the materials.
GEORGE OERTEL JR. AND LOUISE HOPPING were so smitten with each other that soon after they met, they planned to elope and marry immediately because George was about to be sent overseas, according to Martha Keith, at 62 the youngest of Louise's five siblings.
"My sister told my oldest sister, Andree, that they were going to elope. And Andree ratted on them," she recalled with a laugh, "So the parents said, 'No. You are going to have a wedding.' " Both families were Catholic, so the young couple was married by a priest at the Walter Reed Chapel on March 9, 1943. They had known each other for only a period of months. "It was," said Keith, "a wartime romance." Their black-and-white wedding photos, copies of which I obtained from Lorraine Oertel, are wartime classics. In one, Lt. Oertel and his father-in-law are standing proud and straight in their matching Army dress uniforms. The smiling bride is wearing a sensible gray suit.
The husband and wife look poignantly young and happy. Within weeks of this photo, they would conceive the son that George Oertel would never meet. Several months later, while stationed at nearby Fort George C. Meade, Lt. Oertel would fill out an Army-issued last will and testament, naming his new wife as his heir. The young couple never had a chance to live together.
Shortly after signing his will, on September 7, 1943, 2nd Lt. George C. Oertel was transferred to meet up with his new unit, the 88th Infantry Division, 350th Regiment, 3rd Battalion. That all-draftee division had been training in the swamps and tropical heat of Louisiana and Texas in preparation for combat in the Mediterranean. Now the 88th was being transported in October 1943 to the massive military port at Hampton Roads, from which the division would soon ship out to the war in Europe.
The Hoppings never really had a chance to know Oertel very well, but he met a key requirement of a family that was steeped in the military. George Oertel's new father-in-law, Andrew D. Hopping, had served in the American Expeditionary Force that fought in World War I in France, where he met and married a young French woman, Gabrielle Decaux. After the war, Andrew and Gabrielle Hopping remained with the Army in Europe, and their first daughter and son, Andree and Daniel, were born in France. They returned to the United States in 1923 to Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where Gabrielle Louise Hopping was born during the first of their many domestic military postings.
Brig. Gen. Andrew Hopping, who was chief of the Army Quartermaster Supply Division, was a 1935 graduate of Harvard Business School, and helped to coordinate supplies and operations for the war in the Pacific. After World War II, he was assigned to the Pentagon (when he purchased our house) but was later transferred to Japan and the Philippines, prompting the Hoppings to sell the house in 1947.
"George was a very, very good-looking young man," recalled Louise's sister Andree Hopping Shills, at 84 the oldest surviving family member. She cannot recall much else about Louise's brief courtship and marriage. But both Andree and Martha remember that the newly widowed Louise and her baby moved with the family in 1945 from Northwest Washington to Silver Spring. I reached Andree by telephone on a Sunday at her home in Winter Haven, Fla. I asked her if she had any recollection about the Silver Spring house. "I had my own room, like a bedroom-porch. It was upstairs and a very light room . . . and my sister's room, with the baby, was the room you had to walk through" to get to her own room, Andree said.
I told her that I was calling her from the very same room where Louise and her baby, George C. Oertel III, had lived. It is now my home office since we remodeled the upstairs and eliminated our little "sun room" where, it turns out, Andree used to sleep.
Andree and Martha, who were accustomed to moving constantly as a military family, both have hazy but warm memories of the house, which then was heated by a coal furnace that had to be fed by hand. The kids would help their mother with English, since she had only a rudimentary vocabulary with a heavy French accent. Their father, a gentle, quiet man at home, would sit in a chair in the living room and read aloud newspapers and novels to his wife, while she did household chores and ironing.
Two years after George Oertel's death, Louise remarried and moved to Florida with young Sandy, nicknamed for his bright blond hair. Louise took with her some keepsakes of her dead husband, but left behind others. "I'm sure they stored things in the attic and just forgot it," Andree said. "It's a shame."
GEORGE OERTEL AND ROUGHLY 15,000 OF HIS COMRADES in the 88th Infantry Division set sail in a convoy of hastily constructed Liberty ships from Newport News in November and December 1943. Under the threat of German U-boats, it took the convoys about a month to reach North Africa, and the voyage was not pleasant. Stacked in swaying bunks five-high in the fetid holds of the lumbering ships, the men got seasick by the thousands. Locked below decks for virtually the entire trip, many arrived weak and depleted when their regiments landed near Casablanca, Morocco.
From North Africa, they sailed to German-occupied southern Italy. Their immediate objective would be to drive north against the German army to break the Gustav Line, a formidable Nazi formation south of Rome, defended by 15 enemy divisions fortified by gun pits, concrete bunkers, turreted machine-gun emplacements, barbed wire and minefields. After nearly a year of brutal conflict against divisions of Panzer tanks and squadrons of Luftwaffe bombers, the Allies would ultimately liberate Rome and drive north into the European heartland.
That much I knew from reading various military histories. But to try to find out what actually happened to Lt. Oertel, my last possible source was the National Archives in College Park, where most of the written reports of World War II are stored. Thousands of typewritten papers, stamped "SECRET" but subsequently declassified, told the story of extremely difficult conditions as the 350th Regiment slogged its way through the hot, malarial plains of southern Italy into the Apennine Mountains, where they were subjected to heavy bombing from German planes and artillery. The terrain was so difficult that jeeps and trucks couldn't make it, so mule teams, aided by Italian civilians, were used to carry food, weapons and ammunition for much of the way.
As the 88th Infantry prepared to move north in March 1944, it began taking enemy artillery fire and suffered light casualties in its first skirmishes with the Germans. The detailed reports that month note additional problems from malaria, body lice and fungus infections because of the hot, wet conditions of southern Italy. Enemy shelling, land mines and booby traps continued to cause casualties as the infantry pressed north. The report also noted that "propaganda shells" were being dropped on frontline troops.
At 11 o'clock on the night of May 11, 1944, George Oertel and his comrades faced their first heavy combat as the Allied troops launched the broadest offensive yet in the Italian campaign, called Operation Diadem. The regiment suffered heavy casualties but inflicted worse on the Germans as it drove north for the next several weeks, according to the operations report. By the end of May, the regiment of 3,300 men reported a monthly loss of 106 killed and 623 wounded.
This offensive by the 88th Infantry became big news back home, because the 88th was the first all-draftee division to see combat in the war, and its performance was a test of the Army's entire training regimen. A headline in The Washington Post exulted: "All-Draft Divisions Chase Nazis 30 Miles." The 88th Division wore blue shoulder patches, and German POWs told them they had been dubbed "blue devils," a nickname that the division adopted.
As I combed through page after page in the Archives, I found myself hoping I would find something extraordinary or heroic to mark the role of George Oertel. Perhaps he had won a Silver Star or Bronze Star or some great honor. I couldn't find him, and instead, over countless pages, I was struck by the day-to-day misery of the conditions that were described as his 88th Infantry made its way from the stifling heat of the coastal plains into the cold, rugged mountains, where rain, snow and enemy artillery took their toll.
The 88th moved through the mountains under dark of night because otherwise German mortar and machine-gun emplacements would blow them away. The Americans crossed mountain after cold mountain, many of them getting sick, many coming down with painful trench-foot infections that occasionally required amputation. Sometimes they ran out of C-rations and had to wait a day or even two for the mules to arrive.
Later, I would find a book about the 88th, called Blue Devils in Italy, written by one of Lt. Oertel's fellow soldiers, John P. Delaney. He summed up the Italian campaign this way: "War is never glamorous. War is a dirty, filthy business. It is life lived under the most miserable conditions. It is death suffered under the most horrible circumstances. It is fought on lonely hillsides, in rubbled towns, in ditches and sewers and cellars, in rain and snow and mud, in pain and fear . . . War is dead men in the hot sun, dying men screaming in pain, wrecked men in hospitals with plates in their skulls, sightless eyes, stumps of legs and arms, men fed through tubes or with their insides held together by wire . . . War is something that should never happen, but does."
At the Archives, after thousands of pages of records, I finally came upon the name of 2nd Lt. George C. Oertel Jr. It was in July 1944, and the 350th Regiment records for that month, unlike others, were contained in a gray metal field folder that is dented and scratched, as if it had seen combat. Oertel was listed among 50 officers who were awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge for "exemplary conduct in action against the enemy" for the battle on May 11. The newly created honor went to those who had performed admirably under hostile fire, and carried with it a $10 monthly pay stipend. "On Saturday, 1 July 44, at 1000, an impressive ceremony and parade was held to present medals and awards, and honor those Officers and men who received them. The afternoon was devoted to recreational activities, to include swimming in the Tyrrhenian Sea," the record said.
Ten days later, Oertel would be dead. With the Nazis in retreat, Rome had fallen in June, and Oertel was among the thousands who joyously entered the liberated Eternal City. Huge throngs of Italians turned out to welcome the Americans, but the 88th Infantry could not stay for long. The assault continued north, driving toward the Arno River and the hills of Tuscany.
The last day of Oertel's life, July 11, 1944, appears unremarkable in the records. The 350th Regiment was moving near a village called Villamagna. The 10 a.m. log entry for that day said: "Our regiment is still fighting hard just S of 38th grid line." A later summary of the day's action noted, "During the afternoon of 11 July, our troops on the left flank encountered strong enemy resistance in the form of heavy artillery."
The regimental records continue on through the rest of the war, as the 88th drove north all the way through Italy in a victorious but costly campaign. In 344 days of fighting, the division, whose authorized strength was 15,000 men, had lost 2,298 killed in action, 258 who died of wounds, and 9,225 wounded. In all, 312,000 Allied troops were killed, were wounded or went missing in Italy alone. When the 350th Regiment finally came home in the summer of 1945, George C. Oertel Jr. was left behind, buried in a military cemetery near where he had fallen, in a seaside town called Follonica on the shore of the Tyrrhenian.
The man who performed Oertel's burial service was Maj. Wallace Hale, the 88th Division chaplain, who now lives in Texas and is about to turn 90. He doesn't remember Oertel specifically, he said, because some days he buried more than 100 men. Hale was only 29 then but said he will never forget the spirit of the soldiers, who called him "Chappie." "Even in the worst days, they could find things to laugh about, smile about, even when they lost their best buddies," he said. "Young men have exhilarance and staying power. If war was fought by old men, it would never be fought."
IT WAS OBVIOUSLY FOOLISH, in retrospect, for me to think that Sandy Lang would even remotely resemble the dark, handsome soldier who had been the object of my quest. Nonetheless, it was jarring to finally meet the infant son of 2nd Lt. George Oertel Jr., who was now a 60-year-old, white-haired grandfather with a thick white mustache and a substantial belly that he said he'd acquired only in recent years.
Lang and his wife of 39 years, Linda, warmly welcomed me into the living room of their spacious ranch house in Altamonte Springs. He was a soft-spoken and quiet fellow, and, after we visited for a while and I began to spread out my materials on the coffee table in the living room, Lang shook his head back and forth wordlessly. He was examining his father's Purple Heart certificate, along with photographs of his parents' wedding, which he had never seen before.
"Well . . . isn't that something?" he finally said. "It's a little overwhelming to have this all dumped in my lap."
Lang, who was still named George Oertel III until his formal adoption around age 10, said he was puzzled as a kid that his name was different from that of his parents. He started asking questions then and learned that his birth father had died in the war, but his mother never gave many details. Once, after visiting his Oertel grandparents, he remembers peppering his mother with questions and her telling him that "it's really too painful for me to go back and revisit those times."
Seeing a photograph of his parents together for the first time, Lang said, "It looked to me like they were full of optimism and starry-eyed. I don't think she ever got over George being killed. I know she carried him in her heart. She was definitely devoted to my stepfather, but she never got over that."
Growing up, Lang said, he only rarely saw the pictures of his father that his mother kept carefully tucked away. "I remember I always thought he was a handsome man, and I wondered why I wasn't as handsome," he said. "I had freckles and buck teeth, and I was gangly, and I'd look at a picture of him and wonder, 'What in hell happened to me?' "
His mother, he said, suffered from depression and alcoholism late in her life and died in 1981 at age 58.
Lang's own attitude about the military had been colored by the Vietnam War. He attended Florida State University but left because of poor grades in the early 1960s and faced being sent to Vietnam. Lang said he was tempted to seek a deferment that was available to him as the sole surviving son of a war casualty. His adoptive father, a World War II Navy veteran, encouraged him, saying, "Your father was killed, and I certainly did my share, and I don't really think much of this war . . . So, stay in school." Lang returned to FSU and graduated in 1968.
It was only within the last year, Lang said, long after his adoptive father had died and his house was cleaned out, that Lang received some of his mother's keepsakes, including scrapbooks of George Oertel's military training days. Motivated by my phone call to sift through them, Lang said, he was not aware how many things she had kept, including the actual Purple Heart, which was in its original box. The nation's oldest military honor, created by George Washington in 1782, it is a beautiful purple-and-gold medal with a purple ribbon. It is inscribed "For Military Merit. George C. Oertel Jr."
His mother had saved the Western Union telegram that arrived at the Hopping home in Northwest Washington on July 30, 1944, at 4:08 p.m.: "The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret . . ." Also among her papers was a letter from Maj. Hale, the chaplain, in December 1944, expressing sorrow over Oertel's death and explaining the specific circumstances: "He was a platoon leader of one of our weapons platoons and was moving his machine guns into position on the afternoon of that day. As he was leading his men around a building, an enemy shell scored a direct hit on the side of the building and he was killed instantly by shell fragments."
His mother had also kept a letter from an Italian family who had befriended George and several other officers when they were stationed for several months near Naples in early 1944. "I do not have words to express the sorrow we felt at the loss of dear George," wrote Maria Bucarelli of the town of Bagnoli on August 7, 1945. She mentioned how George had gone to confession and communion with her family, and how they spent Easter together having a grand Italian dinner.
"You gave George a beautiful gold cigarette case, and he always carried it in his pocket . . . It was like a symbol of the love that bound him to his dear wife," she wrote. The case had gotten broken and would not close, she said, but her husband had fixed it and returned it to George. "I can't tell you how happy George was . . . He loved you very much and treasured your gift."
Bucarelli wrote that George and the other officers remarked about how much they liked the area, and that "after the war they wanted to come back to Italy as tourists with their wives and children." She also thanked Louise Oertel for sending photographs. "We were very glad to see the picture of you and little Sandy. How beautiful Sandy is!"
Also among Louise Oertel's papers was a handwritten "Dear Lou" letter sent by her father, Brig. Gen. Hopping, from our Silver Spring home, postmarked April 3, 1946. He wrote: "We enjoy your letters so much. We miss you and Sandy so much. The house seems empty without him. I keep looking for him to run up to me with his beautiful smile." The general, who was quite handy, also noted that he had finished the cellar and "the screened porch adds a lot to the appearance of the house." He couldn't write a longer note, he said, because he'd just received his orders for the Pacific and had to start packing.
Sandy Lang smiled when I showed him two photographs that I had gotten from his cousin Danny, which were taken inside our house in 1946. One shows his mother striking a Hollywood starlet pose in front of our fireplace, and the other shows 2-year-old Sandy being cuddled by his maternal grandparents, whom he described as very gentle, loving people.
Soon after the Hoppings moved away, on to the Pacific, the War Department offered families of dead soldiers a one-time-only opportunity to have the bodies that had been buried in Europe exhumed, transported and reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery. So, on December 2, 1948, 2nd Lt. George C. Oertel Jr. came home for good.
Two years later, Brig. Gen. Hopping had a heart attack at the Pentagon and died there on January 11, 1951. He was also buried at Arlington.
Lang, during his teens, in his twenties and again in his thirties, visited his father's grave at Arlington, along with the graves of the Hoppings. He remembers that the visits gave him goose bumps and filled him with sadness -- and also with deep appreciation for his father's sacrifice. On his last visit to the grave, he brought his son, David, who is now 35, and is athletic and slender, with sharp features and dark coloring. The Langs all think David bears a strong resemblance to his paternal grandfather.
Lang said my visit has inspired him to make another visit to Arlington. He's planning to go next month with his wife and two grandsons, David, 9, and Caleb, 8. Learning more about his father, Lang said, "has instilled a sense of pride in his accomplishments and his sense of loyalty to the country . . . As a kid you say, 'My real Dad was killed in the war.' It gives you a sense of pride, but not the kind of pride that I am feeling now."
SEVERAL WEEKS LATER, I stood in a chilly April rain on a hillside at Arlington National Cemetery, finding it really hard to fathom that the remains of a young, vibrant man were buried beneath the uneven ground, covered with grass and weeds and bare spots of earth. In one direction, Oertel's grave has a pleasant view with evergreen trees, but it also overlooks the daily traffic jams of Interstate 395, the mass of the Pentagon and a Citgo gas station.
Within this sprawling 624 acres dotted with more than 290,000 graves, George Oertel has a small, white marble government-issue headstone, 21 inches tall, 14 inches wide, 4 inches deep. It is a random resting place between the graves of an Air Force colonel who died in the Vietnam era and the wife of an Army colonel who died in 1953.
George Oertel was buried alone, with none of his family nearby. It seemed to me particularly lonely somehow.
I studied the worn gravestone -- "Born October 5, 1919. Died July 11, 1944" -- and tried to grasp the loss endured by the Oertels, and by Louise Hopping and her son. It was only then that it really hit home to me that George Oertel had been the very same age at his death as my own first-born son, Daniel, is now.
As I pondered this, the drumbeat of a funeral cortege filled the morning air. A 100-soldier procession of Marines, crisply dressed in white and black, marched along Patton Drive. Six white horses -- one without a rider -- were pulling a wooden caisson holding a Marine's coffin. His casket was wrapped in an American flag. Behind the caisson walked half a dozen family members, with three cars following. I walked down the muddy hillside to witness the funeral, wondering if it was for a victim of the ongoing fighting in Iraq.
At the grave site, family and friends gathered under a protective canopy as the Marine Band played "Taps" and an honor guard fired rifles in salute before the band played the haunting melody of the Navy Hymn. The funeral, it turned out, was for Kermit Charles Zieg, who, just like George Charles Oertel, served in World War II as a second lieutenant and also received a Purple Heart for a war wound. Zieg, like Oertel, had a son who was born in 1944 and who was named after him. But fate allowed Zieg to live to the age of 85, the very same age that Oertel would have been this year. Zieg was allowed a 60-year marriage, a 20-year career in the Marines and a long, active life. So he was laid to rest, with his son and daughter and three grandchildren and family friends looking on. Then the band marched off, and I walked back up the hill to bid a silent farewell to a soldier who died much too young.
Peter Perl is a Magazine staff writer. Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this article. Perl will be fielding questions and comments about this article Tuesday at 1 p.m. on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.