NAPLES, Italy — Over peach cobbler and coffee, Tucker Axum sat rapt with attention as 83-year-old Josef Rulands shared a morbid tale from nearly seven decades ago.
The grim memory of a teen-aged boy returning with his family to their farm in Buscherheide, Germany, after authorities lifted an evacuation order. A recollection of finding a grave and lone wooden cross erected in the meadow, and two soldiers’ helmets: one German, one American.
The Rulandses assumed under the dirt mound lay the body of a German soldier.
They were wrong.
In August 1946, a German search committee opened the grave on the Rulandses’ land. The body was clad in an American uniform.
In March 1947, members of the American Search Committee reopened the grave. Three months later, the body was taken to Ardennes American Military Cemetery in Brussels, laid in a grave and listed as UNK X-5662.
Rifleman Mage Axum had been classified as missing-in-action since October 1944.
On Sept. 15, 1947, officials positively identified his remains based on dental charts, the man’s height and shoe size.
From more than 90 pages of war records, letters, telegrams and web searches, Tucker Axum, 32, has come to know his great-uncle in death.
He knows the World War II soldier suffered a broken upper jaw and was missing teeth from battle injuries sustained during a hard-fought clash against heavy German resistance in a night raid to take Buscherheide in October 1944. His hands were missing when the body was found.
Tucker Axum knows the last words his great-uncle wrote to his wife, Annie Mae, and baby daughter Sharon, who waited in Palestine, Texas, for his safe return.
“Just a line to let you know that I am still okay and hope you all are too,” reads part of the letter dated Sept. 2, 1944. “Honey, I had the best dream about you and the baby last night. I only hope God will some day let it come true. I am going to keep hoping and praying that he will. Honey, I want you to pray for me and every one of us. Pray for this thing to come to a close, and I feel that it will before too long. Please don’t worry about me as I am OK. Take good care of yourself and baby. Kiss her for daddy. I love you all lots.”
He died 46 days later.
Tracing the past
Websites dedicated to reconnecting war comrades, announcing military unit reunions and otherwise documenting personal war histories are helping people like Tucker Axum trace their ancestors’ pasts.
“A lot of websites are popping up full of great information,” said author and World War II historian Martin King.
Some sites are managed by private people, relatives or veterans with a passion for keeping the history alive, King said. Others are maintained by military units and historians. The American Battle Monuments Commission is a treasure house for records. “To know these people is gold,” King said.
During World War II, divisions, brigades and units kept rather detailed war records that are becoming more accessible to the public and easier to track, King said.
“Each [U.S.] unit, down to the platoons, for example, was expected to keep daily reports on activities,” King said. “Some divisions had record keepers, people just there for paperwork and no other purpose. ... And they were quite meticulous.”
As World War II dragged on, documentation increased as more men were committed to combat, said historian and author Richard Frank. More units filed after-action reports, for example, aimed at illuminating what happened or making recommendations for future missions. These “were very candid,” making details often invaluable, Frank said.
Other sources of war documents include archives, newspapers, libraries and town halls — and the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
In spite of the devastating loss of 16 million to 18 million military personnel records in the great fire in 1973 at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, some service records can be recreated if the servicemembers filed medical claims through the Department of Veterans Affairs, Frank suggested.
Passing down family history
It’s one thing to have documents, but something totally different to hear history told by someone who lived it.
Josef Rulands remembers returning to his family home in September 1944 from the Netherlands, where his family had fled. He was standing in the meadow as his father discovered the cross, the helmets, the shallow grave.
It’s a memory that has remained with him, and though painful, one he was grateful to share with Tucker Axum and his wife, Heidi, when they visited Buscherheide in May, Rulands said by phone to a German translator, who emailed the translation of the conversation to Stars and Stripes.
Tucker Axum’s research to revive his great-uncle’s past and the visit with the Rulandses has kept the story of Mage Axum alive, Rulands said. “Maybe one time, Tucker will tell this story to his kids and they also want to see the place, which is part of the history of family Axum.“
The Rulandses were welcoming but reserved during the Axums’ visit over Memorial Day weekend.
“They said the Germans didn’t talk about the war — they are ashamed of their role,” said Axum, a special agent with Naval Criminal Investigative Service who, until August, was stationed in Naples, Italy. “It was a horrible time, no one wants to relive it or think about it.”
No one talked about it in Sharon Axum Brooks’ home either.
For 69 years, she thought her father was MIA. For 69 years, no one talked about it, though her mother knew she had been widowed.
Not knowing gave Brooks hope, she said during a recent phone interview from Palestine, Texas, where she still lives.
She was 13 months old when her father disappeared. She has no real memory of him, only of a sensation of a man holding her.
“I just know that that man was my daddy.”
She grew up wondering, “What if?” What if he sauntered into a family barbecue? Or surprised her on her birthday?
The call from her cousin Tucker in late May answered all of those “what ifs.”
“I was so shocked when I found out, so overwhelmed. But now I had closure, as bad as the news was.”