One Man's Trash is a World War II Buff's Treasure

One Man’s Trash is a World War II Buff’s Treasure

A reader seeks clues about a mysterious veteran

I rescued this artifact from the garbage in Washington Heights in New York City shortly after returning from an extended combat tour in Vietnam in 1969. I’m a red leg—an artilleryman—and very familiar with 105mm ammunition. Decorated with a greenery pattern, it reads: “England, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland, Germany 1944-45. To Mom From Marty.” I believe Marty might have come from Washington Heights and went into the U.S. Army or Marines, as I did. Is it possible to track down Marty’s artillery battalion based on the countries mentioned on the canister? And maybe even find out who Marty is? —John Revi, Bronx, New York

“Trench art” made of artillery shell casings is most often associated with the First World War but was popular in World War II as well. I believe this piece was created by coating it with wax, removing the wax in selected areas, and then dipping it in an acid solution to create the raised effect, along with the copper-and-brass appearance. Because of this, I believe Marty hired someone to do the work for him. Soldier-made work is more normally engraved or bears designs stamped on the casings.

A 105mm shell casing, like these at the feet of artillerymen in 1944 France (above), was a keepsake before landing in the trash. (Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)
A 105mm shell casing, like these at the feet of artillerymen in 1944 France (above), was a keepsake before landing in the trash. (Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

But what do we know about Marty? Complicating matters, the name is not just a man’s. But a Marty of either sex, based on sheer numbers, was presumably in the armed forces rather than the USO or Red Cross. Approximately 16 million Americans served in uniform in World War II; of those, about two million served in Europe. Marty served or passed through six countries there, so that most likely places him in the army.

While it is certainly possible to determine which divisions served in all six countries, that would hardly narrow our search. Many, if not most, of the divisions in General Omar Bradley’s 12th Army Group—particularly the dozen or so in Lieutenant General William H. Simpson’s Ninth Army—passed through them: as many as one million GIs. Additionally, there are a large number of U.S. Army and U.S. Army Air Forces personnel and units that were not part of a division; their records are more difficult to find. And rosters are available only for a minimal number of units. On top of that, we don’t know for certain if Marty was actually from Washington Heights.

Someday, perhaps, if all the service records are entered into a database that is searchable in multiple ways, it might be possible to narrow down who Marty was. At present, the exhaustive records at the National Archives and Records Administration are searchable only by last name and by state and county—which leads to 142,268 individuals who served from New York, New York.

So for now, the identity of our Marty remains a mystery. But in the end, this artifact is an interesting memento of the war, and—like a photograph of an unknown service member—serves to remind us that many individuals working together made victory in World War II a reality. —Tom Czekanski, senior curator and restoration manager, The National WWII Museum 

Have a World War II artifact you can’t identify? 

Write to Footlocker@historynet.com with the following:

— Your connection to the object and what you know about it.
— The object’s dimensions, in inches.
— Several high-resolution digital photos taken close up and from varying angles.
— Pictures should be in color, and at least 300 dpi.