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Nephew spends 20 years tracking down his uncle, a World War II hero

Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial. (American Battle Monuments Commission photo/Released).

For the longest time, Uncle Dave existed only as a picture on the mantle.

Wry smile, thick eyebrows, Dave “Rosie” Rosenkrantz was a paratrooper in World War II in the 82nd Airborne Division, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, H Company. In the last picture anyone took of him, Dave was sitting happily next to a rifle with grenades dangling from his shoulder and across his belly in some unknown European city.

“I could see his picture and a few medals,” said Phil Rosenkrantz, Dave’s nephew, who was born in 1949, four years after the Army had labeled Uncle Dave as missing in action. “Everyone told me he was a war hero.”

Phil’s grandmother, Eva Rosa (Dave’s mother — he was one of 11 children), always held out hope that her middle son would walk through the front door.

“She told me he’s going to find his way home,” recalled Phil, who lives in Placentia. “She refused to believe he was dead.”

What happened to Dave Rosenkrantz is a World War II story that may have never been uncovered if Phil hadn’t become interested in his uncle’s fate. Phil worked for 20 years to find Dave, and his story is detailed in a self-published book called “Letters from Uncle Dave.” Seventy-three years after his disappearance, the mystery of Dave’s life was solved.

But the solving didn’t offer the closure Phil expected.

“Writing the book was closure,” said Phil, who is a part-time professor of engineering at Cal Poly Pomona.

In 1998, Phil saw the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” the Steven Spielberg epic about the search for a missing soldier who had three brothers fighting in World War II at the same time. Seeing the movie gave Phil an idea. He would begin his own quest to find his missing uncle, who also had three brothers fighting in World War II.

He started with a standard Google search.

“Let’s see what I can find out,” Phil remembers thinking to himself.

Witness found

The mystery had such a triumphant beginning. Phil found an interesting story about Uncle Dave.

Dave Rosenkrantz graduated from Jordan High School in Watts. He was drafted into the Army and became a paratrooper in 1944.

Uncle Dave was quoted in an Associated Press article which told an amazing tale. Dave Rosenkrantz was captured by 200 Italians.

They didn’t kill him.

“They surrendered to him,” Phil said, referring to old newspaper accounts of the incident.

Then, he found a reference to Uncle Dave on a website describing his participation in Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands. That battle was later the subject of the film “A Bridge Too Far,” which starred Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Sean Connery, James Caan, Ryan O’Neal and was written by William Goldman.

The famous operation was a suicide mission in which Americans in rowboats took on a German stronghold on the Rhine River. They were being shot at as the boats hit land.

Dave Rosenkrantz was listed as a casualty in Operation Market Garden.

The Rosenkrantz family got a letter explaining he disappeared Sept. 28, 1944, 11 days after Operation Market Garden began.

Phil sent an email to the webmaster of the site that included Uncle Dave’s name among the casualties. Three weeks later, he got an email back. The webmaster’s father, Fred Thomas, had been good friends with Dave Rosenkrantz. Fred knew another soldier, Ted Finkbeiner, who had witnessed Uncle Dave’s death.

“I called Ted,” Phil said.

Ted explained that Uncle Dave had survived the suicide mission. Dave and a group of American soldiers had taken over a farmhouse. Ted told him that the Germans had surrounded the Americans in the middle of the night. Uncle Dave was patrolling the perimeter of the farm when he was shot from behind by a German machine gun.

Ted saw Uncle Dave’s body fall.

“I was blown away,” Phil said when he confirmed his uncle’s death in 1999.

But when the Americans went back, a new mystery began.

Dave Rosenkrantz’s body was gone.

“Now the question became, what happened to my uncle’s remains?” Phil said.

‘I was stunned’

Phil made his own website to tell his uncle’s story.

That’s when he was contacted by Ben Overhand, who lives in the Netherlands.

“He calls me and says, ‘I’ve been looking for your uncle’s remains for 15 years,'” Phil said. “We talked for three hours on the phone.”

Among World War II historians, Overhand had created a name for himself because, since he was 15 years old, he had used a metal detector to search for artifacts. In his searching, he had found the remains of 12 German soldiers and one American (not Dave Rosenkrantz).

He had been searching the Den Heuvel estate in Appeltern, Netherlands — the farm in which Uncle Dave had been last seen.

“Ben had grown to like my uncle even though he never knew my uncle,” Phil said. “Ben told me if there is one guy he wished he could find it was Staff Sgt. Rosenkrantz.”

Ben found records that Uncle Dave’s body had been claimed by the Dutch Graves Ministry.

That led to a search of the Netherlands American Cemetery, where 8,000 American soldiers are buried, with 105 of those unidentified.

Overhand said he had suspicions about one particular unmarked grave. The body was exhumed, and a DNA test performed.

In January 2018, the news came to Phil Rosenkrantz. The DNA test matched.

Uncle Dave had been found.

“I was stunned,” Phil said. “I was emotional. By then, I felt like I knew him. I felt humbled to be his nephew. I thought about what might have been.”

Phil had long ago promised, “If they ever find him, I’ll have to write a book.”

On July 17, 2018, Dave Rosenkrantz’s remains were flown to Los Angeles International Airport in a flag-draped coffin. On July 20 of that year, he was buried at the Riverside National Cemetery with full military honors in front of 34 relatives.

‘He was found’

It took Phil Rosenkrantz two years to write the book. In it, he publishes letters from Uncle Dave that make him sound like a good guy who loved when his family would send him fruit cake for Christmas.

His book is available online at Amazon.com. As of mid-December, it had sold 856 electronic copies, 175 paperbacks and 59 hardbacks.

Phil said one of the biggest thrills of his quest to find his uncle came in 2019.

He went to the Netherlands American Cemetery, where the names of American dead and missing soldiers are on a giant wall.

“I got to put the medallion on the wall signifying he was found,” he said.

Phil earned that.

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