Family recovers LI war hero's ID tag

May 27, 2008 7:06:39 PM PDT
It wasn't as if Bernard J. Ray's family had nothing to remember him by. The Army lieutenant had posthumously received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for valor, for his heroism during the World War II battle of the Hurtgen Forest in Germany. In addition, a Merchant Marine cargo ship and a U.S. Army barracks in Germany had been named for him.

So relatives were stunned to learn recently that after 63 years there was something more - and more personal - from the Baldwin soldier: His dog tag, unearthed last February by a German souvenir hobbyist with a metal detector in the forest where Ray, 23, had been killed on Nov. 17, 1944.

The collector, Stefan Sagorski, set out to locate the dog tag's owner through the Internet, according to an account in Newsday's Sunday editions. His inquiry drew the attention of history aficionado John Chiarella, 55, of Dix Hills.

Chiarella spent months trying to track down Ray's relatives. One Web site posting led to another, without results. But on a recent afternoon, the unexpected happened again:

Chiarella, Charlie Jamison, an American Legion volunteer in Baldwin, and a reporter were standing at Ray's grave in the National Cemetery at Pinelawn, when they were spotted by Louis DiLeo, 50. As chief bugler for the New York Military Forces Honor Guard, DiLeo had just played "Taps" for two military funerals.

DiLeo, of Seaford, was curious about the strangers because his wife, Maria, is distantly related to the Ray family. Upon learning why they were there, DiLeo called her on his cell phone.

"Maria, I'm holding Bernie Ray's dog tag. ... It's in my hand right now."

The word spread to Ray's relatives, including a 91-year-old sister in Florida, and his niece and goddaughter, Beryl Higgins, of Mendham, N.J., who keeps Ray's Medal of Honor framed on a wall.

"We just can't believe this," Higgins told the newspaper. "It's like a piece of Bernard is coming home."

According to the 1945 Medal of Honor citation, Ray - already wounded - essentially sacrificed his life to blow a hole in a German wire barricade, enabling his troops to carry out a successful attack.

The dog tag may have been left when Ray's body was initially buried on the battlefield. His remains were later moved to a cemetery in Germany and, still later, repatriated to Pinelawn.

The still-shiny ID tag was to be presented to Ray's relatives Monday at the American Legion's Memorial Day observance at Silver Lake.

Some dog tags of long-dead GIs that turn up in flea markets and souvenir shops are fakes, but Larry Greer, spokesman for the Pentagon's POW/MIA Office, told Newsday there was "nothing to indicate that it (Ray's) is not authentic." He said the stainless steel would not be seriously affected by years in the dirt.