Jim Stingl | In My Opinion
Discovery satisfies thirst for knowledge about soldier
By JIM STINGL
Bob Schwartz (left) receives his great-uncle George Weiland's canteen from World War II. Randy VanDyken (right) found it on a Pacific Island where Weiland was killed in 1944.
The water canteen that sustained U.S. Marine Pvt. George Weiland until the day he was killed on a Pacific Island during World War II found its way home to Milwaukee Friday.
Bob Schwartz, Weiland's great-nephew, held the canteen in his hands and squinted at where the soldier had scratched his name into the metal.
"I can see it right here," he said.
He died Oct. 4, 1944, during an ambush and furious firefight with the Japanese on Peleliu, one of the Palau Islands. On that same date 22 years later, Schwartz was born.
A software engineering manager and self-proclaimed World War II geek who collects wings and badges from that era, Schwartz didn't learn about his great uncle until 2000. Since then, he has tried to satisfy his growing curiosity about the man who died at age 19 trying to take the generically named Hill 120.
Last month, he received a startling e-mail in Madison, where he lives. A Michigan man named Randy VanDyken, also a WWII buff, had found the canteen and attached cup while exploring on Peleliu.
VanDyken offered to drive here and give it to him. They met Friday evening at Mader's restaurant.
VanDyken also handed Schwartz a bag of sand he collected from the beach where Weiland's platoon came ashore. Passing along these keepsakes was a thrill and an honor, he said.
"I know it has to come as a complete shock to the family to have a complete stranger call them and say that they have found a personal item halfway around the world in the jungle after 65 years," he said.
Yes, Schwartz would agree, but a very welcome shock.
"To be able to have something that belonged to a family member from the war is incredible. All of my wings are period wings, but I don't know who owned any of them," he said.
"It's just a miraculous story," said Pat Schwartz, who is Bob's mother and a niece of George Weiland. She was at Mader's for the meeting along with her husband, Jim, as well as VanDyken's wife, Toni, and their daughter and son-in-law, Alison and Steve Wolfe, who live here in Bay View.
Weiland, the youngest of seven children, grew up on Milwaukee's south side and went to Pulaski High School. In 1942, at age 17, he joined the Marine Corps. About the only personal item Schwartz had from his great-uncle until now was a Christmas card he sent to his sister from military training in California. "Love George," it's signed.
He hit the beach of Peleliu on Sept. 17, 1944, in 115-degree heat, and less than three weeks later, he was dead. Schwartz said he learned from the Marines that Weiland was manning a machine gun and trying to provide cover for his buddies when he was hit by a mortar round. He earned the Silver Star and Purple Heart, but those medals have disappeared over the years.
Weiland is buried in the Philippines along with many of the nearly 1,500 American soldiers killed in the Battle of Peleliu. History has raised serious questions about whether the battle provided any strategic advantage and needed to be fought at all.
VanDyken, 57, a Navy Vietnam veteran who lives near Grand Rapids and owns a mechanical contracting company, has explored several Pacific Islands and their battlefields. He has found about 20 mostly unmarked canteens over the years and hopes to return one to an Oregon family this summer.
The area where he found Weiland's canteen and a few others is extremely rugged and rarely visited by anyone. It was only after he got the canteen home and had a chance to wash off years of dirt and vegetation stains that he spotted the name. It was the only canteen that had the cup and handle assembly with it.
Schwartz has created a Web site devoted to aviation wings and badges, and he dedicated the site to Weiland. That's how VanDyken found him through an Internet search.
VanDyken knows Weiland is buried far away, but he sees the return of the canteen as a sort of homecoming.
"It's a closing of one of life's circles brought about by the grace of God. When you have walked the ground where he fought and gave his life, I just cannot come up with a better explanation," he said.
Schwartz thanked VanDyken and said he would treasure the canteen and pass it along to his son someday.
Schwartz's mother told him that because he was born on Oct. 4, his grandmother believed a special connection of some type linked him to his late great-uncle George.
"I have a feeling," he said, "somewhere in heaven she is smiling right now with a 'See, I told you so,' look on her face."
Call Jim Stingl at (414) 224-2017 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org