Green Valley’s John Keker isn’t the only World War II veteran getting his dog tag back after losing it more than six decades ago.
Two more have been returned and at least three more are on their way to owners or relatives thanks to the efforts of Shane Fender, a reservist with the Australian army who came across a box of tags last year while deployed in the Solomon Islands.
Keker was profiled in a June story in the Green Valley News after Fender tracked him down and returned his dog tag. From there, the story shot around the globe and several groups are lending a hand.
As of Friday, Fender had returned a dog tag to the relatives of Edward Eugene Phemister, a soldier with the 1st Raider Battalion who was killed in action in Guam on July 26, 1944. He has also made contact with three more relatives of dog tag owners and is awaiting addresses so he can mail the tags to them.
Keker, 88, got his military dog tag back in February. He served in the Marines from 1942-45, and was stationed for part of that time in Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands northeast of Australia.
“I am so glad my story is helping to get some more dog tags back home,” Keker said. “It’s too bad about the vets that are no longer with us, but I am sure their relatives will be happy to get them back.”
Fender said reading the story and seeing a photo of Keker with his dog tag and also a photo of Keker in his uniform at 17 brought him “great joy.”
“Seeing and hearing this moment from John and his family is the sort of stuff money can’t buy,” Fender said. “Besides his war service, John sounds like a great guy with true communal spirit, and pretty dapper when he was young.”
The Associated Press picked up Keker’s story and it went viral on a journey that has brought a dozen or so emails to the Green Valley News from all over the world, including offers to help find the owners of the tags.
One of the go-getters in the search party is Bruce Burlingham, historian for the U.S. Marine Raider Association, a non-profit group whose mission is to preserve the history of World War II U.S. Marine Raiders and to advance education, including scholarships for native born children in the Solomon Islands.
Fender contacted the Marine Raider Association in February. He gave Burlingham the names and any other information on the tags. Burlingham was able to identify six Marine Raiders, the units they served in, last known residence and some dates of death. That group included Keker, who was listed as a private first class in E Company with the 2nd Marine Raiders Battalion.
“I called (Keker) and told him that his dog tag had been recovered on Guadalcanal,” Burlingham said. “He remembered losing the dog tag and said he never thought he’d see it again.”
Burlingham said that after some research, he located Morris L. Phemister, a cousin of the late private first class Edward E. Phemister, who was also on Fender’s list. He called him in southern Illinois to arrange for the dog tag to be returned.
“I receive many requests for help in identifying and locating Marine Corps veterans, both living and dead, for a variety of reasons,” Burlingham said. “Shane is one of three Australians who have contacted me in the last two years to request my assistance with returning dog tags found on Guadalcanal.”
Burlingham, an honorary life member of the Marine Raiders Association and on their board, said his 89-year-old father served with the Marine Raiders in World War II and is a longtime member of the U.S. Marine Raider Association.
“I am motivated by a desire to give something back to the veterans who sacrificed so much to preserve our freedoms,” Burlingham said. “Returning found dog tags has become a fascinating and challenging part of my historian work. It takes a lot of research and a little bit of luck.”
He said his father still has the dog tag he was wearing when wounded on Okinawa, “still attached to a blood-stained shoelace.”
The circle grows
Burlingham said his work has brought him into contact with a small group of dedicated and like-minded individuals including Francesca Cumero, founder of Angelo’s WWII Angels Dog Tag Return Project and one of the dog tag researchers with pacificwrecks.com. Inspired by her great uncle’s Pacific WWII service, Cumero began to research dog tags and helps to return tags to veterans and their relatives.
She read about John Keker and contacted the Green Valley News hoping to get in touch with Fender.
Since 2005, Cumero has helped research and return about 200 World War II dog tags and other items to the owners or relatives of veterans. Cumero is hoping to make contact with the relatives of the late Fred Jackson Jr., whose dog tag serial number matches the number in his burial information at Biloxi National Cemetery in Biloxi, Miss.
Another Internet connection came in an email sent to the Green Valley News on June 27 from Laura Willey-Stevens of Delaware, a fan of the website findagrave.com. She was able to track down the relatives of dog tag owner John L. Sklba, an Army vet, now deceased. With information provided by Willey-Stevens, Fender contacted John’s daughter, Mary Lynne Sklba, in Merrill, Mich., on Thursday, and the dog tags are on their way home. According to Kris Sklba, John’s daughter-in-law, John passed away in April 2011. His dog tags will be presented to his only grandchild, John Paul Sklba.
Fender and Willey-Stevens are still waiting to hear from a relative of Alvin W. Johnson, whose relatives have also been found.
The researchers warned that there are some groups seeking money in return for sending dog tags back home, but no one working with Fender is accepting any fees. There are also plenty of bogus tags out there, Burlingham said, including a novelty Bill Clinton tag floating around. Clinton never served in the military.
“A lot of soldiers created their own novelty tags, even back in World War II, and we see those every so often,” Burlingham said. “They are pretty difficult to return unless there is the right information listed, but they are still a part of history.”
Should Fender not fulfill his mission of returning all the dog tags to the owners or relatives, he hopes to travel to the United States and deliver the Marine tags to Camp Pendleton in California and the Army tags and others to a similar Army installation.
“Ideally, we would like to see all found dog tags returned to veterans and their families,” Burlingham said. “When this isn’t possible, the dog tags should be placed in museums. In the case of Raider dog tags, they could go to the National Museum of the Marine Corps or Raider Hall in Quantico, Va. Dog tags could also be donated to various American Legion and VFW posts, historical societies, veterans memorials and schools located in the veterans’ home towns.”
Regina Ford | 547-9740