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Fort Bragg paratrooper, missing more than 70 years, is coming home

Fort Bragg (Fort Bragg/Released)

The letters have stayed in the family for decades – hand-written accounts of Staff Sgt. David Rosenkrantz’s service in the 82nd Airborne Division amid World War II.

They were mailed from Fort Bragg, Italy and England and serve as a window into the life of one of the nation’s first paratroopers.

But the letters never answered the question that has bothered Rosenkrantz’s family for more than 73 years: Where was he?

Last week, the family finally got their answer.

On Thursday, the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency announced that Rosenkrantz’s remains were identified and that they are on their way to the family in Los Angeles for a burial in the United States.

Rosenkrantz fought with H Company, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He made combat jumps into Sicily and Holland and participated in the historic Waal River crossing during Operation Market Garden.

On Sept. 28, 1944, after German tanks and infantry launched a major attack on his unit, he went missing.

According to DPAA, Rosenkrantz’s platoon was occupying a farm near the town of Groesbeek when they were attacked by an overwhelming force.

“The isolated paratroopers hid among sparse trees and buildings,” officials said. “As Rosenkrantz rose from his position, enemy gunfire erupted and Rosenkrantz was killed.”

“Due to enemy fire and the proximity to enemy troops, Rosenkrantz’s remains could not be recovered,” the DPAA said.

Decades later, his remains were found with the help of several Dutch citizens, the Royal Netherlands Army’s Recovery and Identification Unit and the American Battle Monuments Commission, officials said.

Phillip Rosenkrantz, a nephew who has been searching for his uncle’s remains for nearly two decades, said the discovery helps bring closure to the family.

The younger Rosenkrantz is a professor emeritus in the industrial and manufacturing engineering department at California Polytechnic University in Pomona. He was born in 1949, five years after his uncle went missing in Europe.

But Phillip Rosenkrantz said his uncle had a lasting presence within the family, even if details were scarce.

“There was a picture of my uncle on the mantle at my grandmother’s house,” he said. “Everyone would say that he was a war hero, but no one was talking about it.”

Phillip Rosenkrantz’s interest was piqued in the late 1990s, he said, after watching the movie “Saving Private Ryan” about the search for a soldier in World War II.

Like the eponymous Private Ryan, Rosenkrantz had siblings in the war. He was the middle child of 11 siblings and was one of five brothers who served during World War II.

Phillip Rosenkrantz said the family plans to bury his uncle next to those brothers at Riverside National Cemetery in southern California.

“We think that’s the best place for him,” he said. “We’re all really excited about being able to do his memory justice and finally get him to rest with his brothers.”

The nephew said he used the Internet and 82nd Airborne Division alumni groups to learn more about his uncle.

He reached out to many veterans who had served with his uncle. Others – including an eye witness to Staff Sgt. Rosenkrantz’s death – found him. And over the course of several years, he pieced together the untold story of his uncle’s World War II service.

At the same time, Phillip Rosenkrantz said he made three trips to Holland to learn more about the battle during which his uncle was killed. He met several men there who were instrumental in finding his uncle.

“The Dutch are still, to this day, very grateful to the Americans for liberating them,” he said.

Two of the men, a researcher named Ben Overhand who helped search for the remains and an author named Frank Van Lunteren, have become family friends.

“I don’t know if this would have happened without one or both of them in the background,” Phillip Rosenkrantz said.

The nephew said he has learned that his uncle’s remains were not identified immediately after the war because he was separated from his identification tags.

Those tags were found near Groesbeek several years ago and returned to the family, he said.

Officials found remains two years ago and recently made the match using DNA testing, Phillip Rosenkrantz said.

“It’s emotional,” he said. “I’m stunned. We were waiting 18 or 19 years for this to happen.”

“It was like… Is it really over?” Phillip Rosenkrantz said of the DPAA notification. “Is he really coming home?”

The nephew said he and other members of the family – none of Rosenkrantz’s siblings are alive today – have developed a greater understanding and respect for what their uncle accomplished.

“When I grew up nobody could tell me what happened to him,” Phillip Rosenkrantz said. “Nobody told me the same story. It just became folklore. But the truth is pretty amazing to know.”

The discovery was praised Saturday by the unit Rosenkrantz served with in World War II.

“The 82nd Airborne Division is grateful to the Rosenkrantz family and the Dutch officials who saw this to its conclusion,” division spokesman Lt. Col. Joseph Buccino said. “David Rosenkrantz was an original All American paratrooper; bringing him home and properly honoring him is important to us.”

In the Netherlands, where Rosenkrantz is listed among the missing on a monument at an American cemetery, DPAA officials said his name will now be marked with a rosette, indicating that he has been found.

Rosenkrantz, born in Los Angeles in October 1916, was 27 years old at the time of his death. He worked at a General Motors plant before enlisting in the Army in February 1942.

In his letters, which his nephew has posted on a website dedicated to the search for Rosenkrantz, the soldier described how the 82nd Airborne Division prepared for war.

“Life goes on as usual around here,” he wrote on March 17, 1943. “We keep training, and although it gets monotonous some times, we always learn something new.”

Rosenkrantz described several of his unit’s training jumps.

“Over 500 men on the ground in less than a minute,” he said of one battalion jump. “It really was a beautiful sight.”

The next month, Rosenkrantz sent his final letter from Fort Bragg before his unit shipped out to Europe.

He described how he was promoted to sergeant. And the secrecy surrounding the impending deployment.

“I wish you could see me all ready to fight,” Rosenkrantz wrote as he described the various weapons and tools he would carry into battle, including rifles, knives and a grenade launcher that he described as “plenty wicked.”

“Being parachuters means that we might fight anywhere or anything…,” he said. “In any case, we are prepared for anything and afraid of nothing.”

“Don’t think about my future too much, because this baby is taking no chances if he can help it.”

News accounts of the war also mentioned Rosenkrantz, who earned two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.

Articles printed in several American newspapers in July 1943 told the story of how Rosenkrantz and another soldier – Cpl. Lee Black of Jackson, Tennessee – captured 200 Italian soldiers.

According to reports, Rosenkrantz sprained his ankle during the combat jump into Sicily on the early morning of July 10, 1943. He and Black hid until daylight so that he could recover, then set out walking to find the rest of their unit.

Instead, they marched into the group of Italian soldiers.

“They captured us,” Rosenkrantz told an American reporter who wrote about the incident. “But then strange things began to happen. They held a conference and decided to turn themselves over to us, for they heard that Americans were only eight kilometers away.”

“They presented us to the Chief of Police of the nearby town and he fed us, wined us, gave us good beds and declared on his honor that he was glad to see us,” Rosenkrantz added. “In fact, everyone was happy, including our prisoners.”

According to the report, Rosenkrantz and Black collected the Italian troops’ weapons and then marched them to American forces.

“They were singing and just about raising hell,” Rosenkrantz recalled. “And a couple of them remarked that they hoped they would be sent to a prison camp in the United States.”

The soldier was later quoted during accounts of the fighting near Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

A story by a foreign correspondent of the Indianapolis Times, which was published after Rosenkrantz’s death, featured a description of fighting during which paratroopers seized a railroad bridge over the Waal River, near the site of the historic crossing.

The soldier described how, after the boat crossing further upriver, his company had taken a position near the bridge further south.

The unit caught a German battalion unaware and, after they refused to surrender, opened up with withering machine gun fire.

At dawn the next day, dead men hung from the bridge’s girders and blood dripped from the beams, Rosenkrantz said.

“It was typical of what went on during the battle of Nijmegen Bridge,” Rosenkrantz said, referring to the Waal crossing. “Nijmegen did not last as long as Sicily, Salerno and Anzio, but it was tougher, and bloodier while it lasted.”


© 2018 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.