Friday, December 11, 2015

The Cap Goes Home

     For the last four years, I've been the keeper of something special - the cap of Lieutenant Joseph E. Leonard of Tipp City, Ohio.  Joe was a World War II pilot in the 417th Night Fighter Squadron.  He and the other member of that two-man crew, Radar Observer Ray Christensen, who was my great-uncle, lost their lives in a battle with German Luftwaffe over the Tyrrhenian Sea.


     There are "family history angels" everywhere - people who find old Bibles, photos, or other family memorabilia in antique stores or yard sales.  They snatch up these treasures and reunite them with their families.  One such angel was a man named David, who found the cap in New Jersey. Surprisingly, Joe's name and serial number were inside.  Unfortunately, David was unable to locate descendants of the Leonard family.  With Joe's close ties to my great-uncle, well, David gave me the cap to take care of in the interim.

Joe Leonard's cap

Inside the sweatband

   From time to time, I would unwrap the cap from its packing, look at it, touch it, and imagine Joe - the young soldier who died with my uncle - wearing it.  I did more research on Joe, and continued to look for his modern-day family, unsuccessfully.

Lt. Joe Leonard

     And every so often, I'd check family trees, looking for someone who had Joe in their tree.  And every time, I would come up empty-handed.  But as I promised David when he sent me the cap, I kept trying.


     A couple of weeks ago, I finally rounded up all the letters, photos, documents and data that I had been collecting on my great-uncle Ray, and decided to sit down and work on writing that story of his short life, and the fascinating years he spent in the U.S. Army Air Force.  I thought again about that fresh-faced young man, the fearless pilot that Ray trusted with his life, and vice-versa.  I climbed to the top of the closet and pulled out the box containing the cap, and once again took it out, looked it over, and imagined the young lieutenant wearing it, dressed sharply in his crisp uniform.  I tried again - and finally, I found a tree that listed Joe, his parents and siblings!  Several emails and a phone call later, I have found the proper home for Joe's cap.  I will re-pack it, and take it to the post office next week, and after 70+ years, the cap will finally be in the right place, at home.

And it feels good.