CHEYENNE, Wyo. (12/02/2012) - William L. Wood, like many men in his generation, left his home to serve his country during World War II. Wood, a gunner in the 39th Bomb Group, Crew 26, would not have chance to go back home to his pregnant wife or hold their baby in his arms. On April 28, 1945, Wood and his crew were flying a mission over the Pacific when a Japanese fighter rammed the right wing of his crew's B-29, tearing off 20 feet of the wing.
Pictured is William L. Wood's 39th Bomb Group, Crew 26. This photo is courtesy of Terry Ratigan, nephew of F/O David P. Donahoo. The photo belonged to Teresa Donahoo, David's mother. Courtesy Photo
The plane, with its 12 crew members, made its way toward land but never reached it. A Purple Heart medal awarded posthumously was the only item Wood's family had left.
More than 50 years later, Randy Brown, a school teacher from East Memorial Elementary School, Greeley, Colo., was helping tear down old buildings in Denver, when he made an unusual discovery in the walls of an old home. Brown had uncovered a box containing a Purple Heart with the inscription, “William L. Wood.”
Not knowing what to do with his find, but knowing it was important, Brown hung on to it for years before his teaching job put him in the path of someone who would know what to do with such a treasured item. Bruce Scheel, a retired technical sergeant, who became a teacher after 20 years of military service, was working at East Memorial in 2008, when Brown approached him with his story and the medal.
“It was just gorgeous,” said Scheel after seeing Wood's medal for the first time. “It had the ribbon, the medal, and a card from the Secretary of the Army, all in perfect shape.”
Scheel and his wife, Wyoming Air National Guard Senior Master Sgt. Michelle Scheel, immediately started looking everywhere for any living family members of Wood's. They searched the internet hoping to find any information that would help guide them in returning the medal to its rightful owners.
“I'm from a military family,” said Mr. Scheel, “so I know the importance of something like a Purple Heart to a family.”
Although the Scheels found a couple of websites with listed information about Wood and his final mission, their search wasn't getting the results they'd hoped for. Wood's date of birth was unlisted and they could not locate his enlistment records.
In time, the Scheels moved away from the Colorado area to Indianapolis, bringing the medal with them and placing it in a display case in the living room of their new home, to continue to protect and keep it safe until the owners could be found.
Around August 2011, the Scheels had their neighbor, Ernest Dykes, over for dinner when he noticed the Purple Heart in the case.
“Dykes was very interested,” Mr. Scheel said, “he had never seen anything like it before.” Scheel told him the background of the medal and its journey up until now.
“You would not believe how my brother can find people,” said Dykes to Mr. Scheel. “Why don't you give me the information that you have and we'll see what he can find.” So, Mr. Scheel gave him what he had, appreciative of the help.
In the middle of September, Scheel received an email from a man named Lee Wood who said his dad was William L. Wood and that he was born six months after his dad disappeared.
“The email gave me chills,” said Mr. Scheel. “It said the last time Lee Wood saw his dad's medal was when he was around eight or nine years old, which would have been around 53 years ago.”
“Wood told me his only guess would be his mother put the medal in the wall to protect it to make sure it wouldn't get lost and either died without telling anybody where it was or forgot about where it was,” said Mr. Scheel.
Scheel and Wood were much closer than Scheel could have imagined, he discovered that Lee Wood now lived in Chicago, Ill., which was only a few hundred miles from the Scheel's new home.
Scheel and his wife traveled to Chicago, Ill., Oct. 22, 2011, to return the medal to Wood's only living family member.
“It is part of his heritage getting returned to him,” said Mr. Scheel. “It was exciting to give it back and a relief to have found Lee,” Mr. Bruce Scheel. “It's back to a family that deserves to have it.”
“It was an emotional day to see Mr. Wood recover something he hadn't seen for over 50 years,” said Mr. Scheel, “but, also a bittersweet day for us because, we had started to feel we would never finds the rightful owner.”
Even though the journey is over and the medal is back to its rightful owners, Mr. Scheel said he will continue to use this experience as inspiration for instilling values in his students.
“I want these kids to grow up being respectful and taking care of this country so my grandkids and great grandkids have a great society to live in.”
By USAF Tech. Sgt. Natalie Stanley
Provided through DVIDS
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