A lost airman

An old trunk at a garage sale starts a quest to unlock its secrets.

Published May 28, 2007

Susan Zaffater has been to enough garage sales to know when something is junk. The trunk was special. She didn't even need to search inside it to know that.

The lid was open. It was Army green, rusted, made of particle board. What got her was the folded American flag, each corner neatly tucked, on top.

The seller wanted $20. Susan's husband, Joe, reached into his pocket.

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The trunk is nearly 3 feet wide, 1 foot tall. On top, in orange stencil, it says:



Last weekend, she rummaged through the box, trying to piece together this man's life.

Under the flag, she found his 8 by 10 military photograph. His pilot goggles rest atop his head. His smile is soft, not one of those macho half-smiles.

"His eyes say, 'Look at me. Look what I've accomplished, ' " Susan said the other day, holding the sepia-toned picture in her den in St. Pete Beach. "Can you see that?"

Digging further, she found military enlistment papers, a driver's license, a newspaper clipping and letters that tell the rest of the story:

The "R" on the trunk stands for Ralph, the "B" for Bernard.

Home was Dayton, Ohio, on a street named Clover. He was 5 feet 7 1/4 inches tall and 155 pounds, with blue eyes and brown hair.

His wife, Betty Jane, is the first picture in his wallet, and the second.

He was Catholic. The trunk contains rosaries, even his first Communion book - given to him by an aunt and uncle on May 19, 1929.

He was a pilot stationed, at one point, at Brooks Field, Texas. He was a good pilot; heaps of newspaper articles, medals and other awards prove it.

A commendation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt says that on April 18, 1943, he was killed in a mission near Florida City. He was 21.

More than 300 people signed the memorial book at his funeral in Ohio.

In the trunk are unopened Western Union telegrams and letters from the War Department that, presumably, Betty Jane couldn't bear to open.

Betty Jane eventually moved on. An invitation in the chest announces her marriage to another man.

The footlocker was no longer just a box. It had a name, a face, a story.

But the story needed an ending.

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Last Monday, Joe Zaffater went online and typed: Wildenhaus, Dayton, Ohio.

Three names appeared at the top of the screen.

It took a couple of tries, but eventually Susan reached a Wildenhaus cousin, who connected her with Rosemary Brun.

You don't know me, Susan said on the phone. Then she explained that she had bought a trunk full of the personal effects of a World War II pilot.

She asked: Do you know Ralph Bernard Wildenhaus?

Yes, Rosemary said. He was my brother.

The women started crying together.

Rosemary was 16 when her brother died. She said the back end of a B-25 he piloted fell off and the plane went down. Eight people were on board. It took authorities two days to find her brother.

She is 80 now, living in Dayton. She had never seen the photos from his military days. She only knows that Betty Jane, pregnant when Ralph died, lost the baby after the funeral. Betty Jane died about 10 years ago.

Rosemary can only guess how the trunk ended up at a garage sale in Floral City. Betty Jane had an adopted son, now dead, who lived in Florida, so he may have brought it here.

Brun offered to pay to have the trunk shipped to Ohio. Then she discovered where Susan lives - 45 minutes from her son in Palm Harbor. He could pick up the trunk.

The two women kept talking by phone and e-mail.

Susan scanned Ralph's photo and e-mailed it to Rosemary, who saw it for the first time.

"Saturday, this man was by himself, " Susan said. "And look at him now. He's going to be brought home and celebrated."

Rodney Thrash can be reached at 727 893-8352 or rthrash@sptimes.com.


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Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they will play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of the news. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, contact editor Mike Wilson at mike@sptimes.com or (727)892-2924.