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Finding Pvt. Gillingham

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Eighty-year-old Russell Gillingham grows wistful as he summons a few fragmented memories of his younger brother Richard. “He liked baseball…we’d play horseshoes…he’d eat like heck. We called him Dick. When we called him Dicky, he didn’t like that.” Both brothers went off to World War II; only one came home. A decorated Army private with the 135th Infantry Regiment, Richard, 21, was killed in Italy’s Apennine Mountains in September 1944. Russell, meanwhile, made a career in the Air Force, retiring as a master sergeant in 1972. For more than half a century he felt a profound emptiness—not only the loss of his brother, but a gnawing sense of unfinished business, for he never learned where Richard had been laid to rest.

Then, last October, Russell’s wife, Jean, saw a feature in a local newspaper, The News Herald of Panama City, Fla. It was a kind of travelogue written by local resident Emily Cramer, 21, a University of North Carolina journalism major who is studying in Bologna, Italy, for a year. The piece gave Jean, 65, an idea: She called the paper and asked if Cramer could locate and photograph Richard’s grave. “I just wanted one little picture,” she says. Cramer jumped at the assignment—”I was all over it,” she says—and after three days and more than a few wrong turns she and a friend arrived at the American military cemetery in Florence, where records led them to plot E, row 10, grave 27. There, in the foothills of Tuscany on Oct. 26, Cramer beheld a white marble cross marking the last resting place of PFC Richard James Gillingham. “I remember signing,” says Cramer. “I said to him, ‘Your family said to say hello.’ We both kissed the headstone.”

Russell and his wife wept when The News Herald ran a two-page story, including several enlarged photos, on Cramer’s discovery. “I wonder what Richard would have thought,” muses Jean. “He’s immortalized.” In fact, to those who knew him best, Dick Gillingham had always been hard to forget. The sixth of eight children born in Erie, Pa., to steelworker Harry Gillingham and his wife, Carrie, “he was always smiling,” recalls his sister Tirzah Willareth, 79. Adds sister Mary Ann Kozak, 75: “He always stuck up for me. If anybody picked on me in school, he was right there.” The last the family heard from him was in a Sept. 7, 1944, V-Mail sent to his oldest brother, Harry, from “somewhere in Italy”: “I hope you’ll take back what you said about wanting to be with me, Harry. Believe me—it’s really the worst of the worst.” Six days later, Richard was dead.

“My dad took it hard,” says Russell, whose mother had died in 1939. So did Richard’s close friend Ethel Hunt, now 77. ” One or two Army men came to my door and told me about his death,” she recalls. “They had a box of cookies and candy that I had sent to him, and some letters.” Clearly, her letters had been important to Richard. “Ethel is still writing every day, and I think she’s tops,” Richard once wrote home. After the war, Hunt married a Navy Seabee, Pete Rippens, and had two children. She says she and Richard were “just very good friends,” but adds, “You never know how something like that might have turned out.”

Over the years, Richard’s other siblings had, through various means, learned where his grave was located. Inexplicably, neither Russell or Jean got the word. All of which makes it ironic that Cramer, a stranger young enough to be Richard’s granddaughter, was Russell’s agent of discovery. The oldest child of car dealer Bill Cramer and his wife, Carolyn, both 47, she had long been fascinated by World War II; both maternal grandparents served as Marines during the war, her paternal grandfather was in the Navy, and she grew up on their stories. When she was 10, Cramer placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. “I remember being haunted by it for years,” she says. Her search for Dick Gillingham’s grave took her to several cemeteries—one filled with South African soldiers, another devoted to Poles—before she finally made her way to Florence. As soon as she located the headstone, she called Jean Gillingham in Florida. “The last thing she said,” Cramer remembers, “was ‘I love you.’ ”

Finally, over the Christmas holidays, Cramer and her parents came to visit the Gillinghams. “I’ve never had a daughter,” said Jean, who has two grown sons and one grandchild with Russell. “I’d like one like you.” Obviously, the discovery of one long-dead hero’s final resting place had, for his brother and sister-in-law, marked both an end and a beginning. “It’s brought a little bit of peace and closure,” says Jean. “And it’s brought new friends—for life, I hope.”

Nick Charles

Don Sider in Panama City