World War II veteran gets lost dog tags back 72 years later

Posted at 5:44 PM, Jul 03, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-05 09:51:08-04

Have you ever lost something important to you, looked for it until you decided it was permanently lost, only to have the item turn up mysteriously .... and many years later? 

This is a story which could be called "Lost and Found."  Really, there are two which are connected because the they are heroic tales of two soldiers in two different wars who lost items dear to them because of the noise and fog of war.

Joe Karpel is 70 years old now.  But when he was 21, Uncle Sam tapped him on the shoulder and drafted him into the Army.  Joe went off to Vietnam.  It was there, during one of the fiercest times of that long war, the Tet Offensive when the Viet Cong and the North Vietnam troops made a big push against American and South Vietnam forces, Joe Karpel was under attack.

"I jumped in the bunker and had no shirt on and realized I lost them," said Joe, who lives quietly in Cleveland.  What was missing as he crawled through the mud were his dog tags. Worn around his neck dangling from a chain, they are pieces of metal bearing the stamp of a service member's name, serial number, religions, and blood type. They are important if the trooper is wounded or killed, because the body can be identified by the dog tags.

However, decades later, Karpel received a phone call at his home. On the other end of the phone was a voice which asked if the person who answered was Joseph H. Karpel. He answered it was.  The voice on the phone began to read Joe's serial number.

"He starts reading," said Karpel. "He goes, 'US 5-2,' and I interrupted him and told him the rest of my serial number from my days in the Army," he added. "And he says to me, 'Welcome home, brother.  We have your dog tags,'" said Karpel, who had long ago given up on finding the dog tags. He went through the rest of his time in the war without them.

On the phone that day a few years ago was someone from an American outreach ministry which found dog tags of U.S. servicemen who had fought in Vietnam.  Apparently, Karpel's dog tags had been buried in the mud and blood of the war, but were found by someone in that Southeast Asian country after the war was over. Bunches of dog tags were being sold on Vietnam streets. Sadly, each was sold as a souvenir.

The outreach ministry saw buckets of them and felt such sale was an injustice. So the ministry bought as many as the group could buy with the intention of researching the names and numbers etched on the pieces of metal and getting them reunited with their rightful owners. 

A few days after the phone call, the dog tags, with a hand-written letter, arrived in Karpel's Cleveland west side mailbox. The dog tags had finally come home. It took more than 40 years and a trip of nearly 9,000 miles for the dog tags to get back into the hands of the soldier who had lost them when he dived for cover while bullets sailed over his head and he fired his rifle back at the enemy.

Joe Karpel sat in his dining room with the letter and the dog tag which came in the mail. He fingered the dog tag nervously, eyeing his name and numbers which were stamped in the pieces of metal.  He didn't really need to read the tag. He knew what it said by heart. His name, blood type, religion, and service number.  In the corner was a speck of dried mud which still clung to the tag. Karpel actually held some of Vietnam in his hand.

Joe Karpel whispered the serial number to himself. "US52681980," he said. .

A few miles away, Wilfred Doerfler, 91, a veteran of World War II was surprised when members of the staff of Ohio Congressman Jim Renacci presented him with several medals and the Combat Infantryman's Badge he would have received in 1945 for his U.S. Army service in the Pacific.

Doerfler, of Wooster, was in a unit which swept through the Philippines as they fought the Japanese. Because the paperwork was either mislaid or lost for the several medals he was to have received, Renacci's office, at the request of Doerfler's children, researched the records. 

At the home of Doerfler's daughter, the medals, including the Bronze Star, which is given for personal heroic or meritorious action, were presented. There was applause from several generations of family members which had gathered.

"This is an honor," said Doerfler, who was drafted into the service during World War II.

Eventually, he attained the rank of sergeant. He thought about those times as family surrounded him and smiled when the medals were presented.

"Excuse me ......," he said, trying to find more words to express his appreciation. The words got caught in a lump in his throat. He was visibly moved. The medals were for his service 72 years before. 

He looked through the album of photographs of men with whom he served and identified almost every man by name and hometown.

"We were to clean out the caves in the mountains which the Japanese would dig into," he said.  "We were to throw hand grenades in and keep going," he said, his eyes beginning to glisten with the memories. "And that's what we did."

Doerfler never actively sought the medals he was due. It was the idea of his children who thought it would be wonderful for their father to receive what was his -- what he had earned.

Doerfler had been reluctant to recount much about his activities in the war. However, over the decades, little by little, he spoke of some incidents. Doefler would not call himself a hero.

"I just did what I was supposed to do," he said.

Most of the medals were for participation in certain areas of the war. Included was the Victory Medal presented to members of the service at the end of the war. Still, the Bronze Star Medal was presented for something special he personally did in the war. He said he could not remember what he had done 72 years before.

"I sit and try to remember," said the veteran.  Shaking his head, he said some of his actions escaped his memory.  "Well, I wasn't supposed to remember that," he said philosophically.

Someone generations ago said that "war was hell."  It was then and it still is now. Doerfler saw parts of hell as he swept through jungles in the Philippines where enemy troops were dug in and American troops had to dig them out by whatever means they had.

Joe Karpel also saw parts of hell as he served in Vietnam and worked with a grave registration unit. Karpel saw the bodies of hundreds of American soldiers who had been killed in action. He said the memory never leaves him. War is hell.

Wilfred Doerfler and Joe Karpel both wore the uniform of the U.S. Army. They served in different wars, but, in a way, they were both comrades in arms because they fought for the United States. Each man lost something in his war.  And years later, each man was surprised when what he had lost came home to him. Two stories of what was lost in the fog and noise of war, but was found in the peace which followed.