The medal detective

Few things mean as much to soldiers as their medals. But if the medals get lost, how do they find their way home? That’s where Major Zachariah Fike comes in.

When Zachariah Fike returned from Iraq in 2006, he needed a hobby to stop his mind wandering back to the scenes he had left behind. He had come back a different person - he'd seen good things and bad things, and needed a way of dealing with the stress.

For him, the solution was to collect antiques - he enjoyed the thrill of searching for lost treasure. Sometimes he came across military items - helmets, uniforms, medals. It bothered him to see them lying around, so he started buying them up.

Fike, aged 35, comes from a long line of soldiers. His parents met in the army. His grandfather was a World War Two veteran who would drive hitchhiking soldiers all the way home, even if it meant going 100 miles out of his way.

Fike's father, Donald

Fike's father, Donald

So it was no surprise that Fike was drawn to military memorabilia. But his feelings about this trade changed in 2009, when his mother, Joyce, presented him with a very special Christmas gift - a Purple Heart.

It symbolises an individual who's shed their blood or their life for a cause, for their country. That shouldn't be in somebody's personal collection.

America's oldest military award, the Purple Heart started out as a cloth patch in the shape of a heart, pinned to the chest of Revolutionary War soldiers by General George Washington himself. Later it became a heart-shaped medal, decorated with the bust of Washington, and given to those wounded or killed in battle.

"It's one of those awards that most soldiers don't want because it means that you've been struck by enemy fire or you've lost your life," says Fike. "So it's very special."

The one Joyce had bought for $100 in an antique shop near her home in upstate New York was engraved "For Military Merit, Corrado A.G. Piccoli". It came in a little case with the dog tags all soldiers carry so they can be identified if they die in battle.

"When I saw it, I knew it didn't belong to me," says Fike. "It symbolises an individual who's shed their blood or their life for a cause, for their country. That shouldn't be in somebody's personal collection. It should be with that family or in a place of honour."

He started digging around in archives to find out what he could about the man who had earned the medal, and learned that Private Corrado Piccoli had enlisted in January 1943, shortly after graduating from high school, and had died in France on 7 October 1944. Fike also found Piccoli's home address and discovered he had six brothers and sisters. That was as far as he got before he was sent to war again - this time to Afghanistan.

It was there that Fike was awarded his own Purple Heart. He was wounded on 11 September 2010 - the date was no coincidence, he says. "The enemy likes to attack us on days that mean something to us." That morning a 107mm Katyusha rocket landed in the room where he was sleeping. "I was very lucky to walk out of there," says Fike. The wounds to his legs healed quickly enough, but his hearing in both ears was permanently damaged.

Fike's mother Joyce

Fike's mother Joyce

When he got home, he gave the medal to his mother. "It hangs on the wall in my living room, and I just look at it and I'm so glad he made it home," she says. Being a former soldier herself didn't make waiting for her son any easier. "It's different if your husband goes, it's different if you go," she says. "But when your only child goes to war it's a whole lot scarier."

However, Fike found it hard to accept that he was worthy of his Purple Heart.

It was the deadliest year of the war in Afghanistan and many injured US soldiers went home with no legs or no arms.

"It was a struggle to feel like I was on the same level as them," he says.

Fike wearing his Purple Heart

Fike wearing his Purple Heart

And waiting for him in the US was that other Purple Heart, awarded to a man who had given his life. He was now even more determined to trace Piccoli's family, and in January 2011 he picked up the trail again, driving up to Watertown, near his mother's home, to visit Piccoli's old high school.

There, in the 1942 yearbook, he spotted the picture of an earnest young man wearing glasses and a tie. "Immediately he became a person, he became real," says Fike. Later that day he met a nun who told him that one of the Piccoli sisters, Mary, still lived in town.

He immediately drove to Mary Piccoli's house, and expected to be able to arrange the return of the medal there and then, but it turned out there was a hierarchy among the siblings and Mary felt obliged to consult her oldest sister, Adeline.

Fike started driving home. "Within five minutes I received a phone call from 'the boss', the oldest girl," he says. "She started to berate me for about 20 minutes: 'Who are you? How did you get this medal? Where do you live?'" The 83-year-old ended the tirade by saying she would drive over from New Jersey the following day - a journey of 400 miles each way.

Corrado Piccoli

Corrado Piccoli

Adeline Rockko-Piccoli was finding it hard to believe that the medal had been lost.

"I was really upset," she says. "So I called him in the car and I gave him what-for. Then I hung up and thought, 'My goodness, this poor soul has gone out of his way to find us, so he must really have the medal.'"

Fike was taken aback. "I didn't sleep that night," he says. "I wasn't sure what to expect."

But he needn't have worried. "In walked the nicest lady I've ever met, and she sat down at the kitchen table and told me her whole life story," he says. "From the time that they immigrated from Italy and how Corrado felt it was his purpose to serve his country and fight in the war, and how much it impacted that family when he died."

Adeline and Corrado's parents, Bernardino and Vincenza Piccoli, had left their farm near Rome to find work in the US when Corrado was two years old. They had intended to stay just for a few years, but as Mussolini strengthened his grip on Italy they decided not to return. Vincenza became a very patriotic American and refused to let the children speak Italian.

So it was as part of the US 180th Infantry Regiment that Corrado returned to Italy - marching right past the road that led to his grandparents' farm - only to be killed weeks later in a battle at Fremifontaine, in north-eastern France.

Adeline was 17 when the news came that her brother was missing in action. "My mother and father were very strong people as far as emotion goes. They made us go to school the next day," she says.

But when the children came home they found their mother in tears. A telegram had arrived confirming that Corrado had been killed.

The Purple Heart arrived in the mail soon after. "We just treasured it," says Adeline. "My mother would keep it in the trunk in her bedroom and every once in a while she'd take it out and hold it." They would talk about how brave Corrado had been, and how he had died fighting for freedom. Without a body to bury for several years, the medal became the focus of the family's mourning.

Not long afterwards their mother died. Soon all the children left home and the medal was passed around between them, until somehow it was lost.

When it turned up again, Adeline saw this as an opportunity for a big family reunion. She told Fike: "You know what? We never got an opportunity to memorialise our brother, to tell the world who he was and how much we loved him."

About 40 Piccoli family members, aged six to 84, came together for the first time to see Fike return the Purple Heart. He had framed it, along with several other military honours the family had not realised Corrado was entitled to. Adeline was impressed. "Zachariah's compassion seems to be never-ending," she wrote in her blog. "He is our close friend and indeed is our hero."

Fike and Adeline

Fike and Adeline

Fike, too, was deeply moved.

He felt as though he had gained a new family - and a new purpose. "Maybe if I've done it once, I can do it again," he thought.

The 69-year promise

The story of Corrado Piccoli and his Purple Heart was broadcast on the news, and the next morning Fike started receiving phone calls from all over the country. Medals had been found in abandoned homes, vehicles, furniture - one had even been dug up in a backyard by a dog.

It was going to be a lot of work, so Fike decided to set up a non-profit organisation, Purple Hearts Reunited, to return lost or stolen medals to veterans or their families.

He's a detective as far as I'm concerned

If a medal is not engraved and is not found with supporting documentation, there is no way of telling who it belongs to. But in some cases the rightful owner can be traced in minutes.

At first Fike did all of the research himself. After a full day's work, training young officers for the Vermont Army National Guard, he would come home, help his wife put the children to bed, and sit up for hours working on his laptop.

"He's a detective as far as I'm concerned," says Tom Bateman, whose father's Purple Heart was at the centre of one of the most satisfying mysteries Fike has solved.

Bateman was only nine months old in June 1945 when his father, also called Thomas, was killed at Mindanao in the Philippines. After the war, his widowed mother struggled to cope and sent him to live with his uncle in Arkansas. "It was a large family, 10 children, and a 240-acre farm, a lovely place for a kid who was starving in the streets of south Chicago," says Bateman.

He had no memory of his father but as he grew up he had reason to be grateful to him - the war bonds his father had bought paid for his university education, and as the only child of someone killed in service Bateman got a "sole survivor" exemption from the Vietnam draft.

In June 2014 Bateman was at work in Memphis when his phone rang. "I got a call from this guy who said he had my dad's Purple Heart and that he had an amazing story to tell me," Bateman recalls. "I thought, 'Uh-oh here we go, this is a scam.'"

But as Fike went on, he became enthralled.

Thomas Bateman senior's Purple Heart had been lost in the early 1950s, and found by an 11-year-old boy, Thomas McAvoy, as he played in the basement of his Chicago apartment block. A box fell out of the rubbish and inside he saw a Purple Heart, engraved with the name of Thomas Bateman. He ran upstairs and gave it to his mother, who made enquiries but couldn't find a Bateman in the neighbourhood.

McAvoy held the medal in his hands once again when his mother died in the 1990s, but like her he had no idea what to do with it. Then, in 2014, someone told him about Purple Hearts Reunited. He got in touch with Fike, who immediately began researching.

What he discovered was that Private Thomas Bateman had been sent in 1944 to join the infantry in the Pacific. On the battlefield in Mindanao the following year, he met a soldier called John Trinca.

John Trinca

John Trinca

The men realised they came from the same poor neighbourhood in the south of Chicago, and promised that if anything happened to them they would drop in on each other's families. But before they could make it to a foxhole to exchange names and addresses, Bateman was hit by Japanese fire. Trinca held him as he died. He desperately wanted to honour his promise, but he couldn't remember the soldier's name - only his nickname, "Chicago" - and under heavy fire there was no time to find out.

"In combat, when the bullets are flying, you don't have time to stop and console your friends," says Fike. "You can't just stop fighting, you've got to keep moving forward. Sometimes you're fighting for 30 days before you have a break."

As Trinca got older his broken promise began to haunt him. In 2009 he dedicated a brick to his unknown soldier at a local veterans' memorial. He inscribed it: "'Chicago' - killed in action, World War II." A few years later he found out the soldier's name and dedicated a second brick to Thomas Bateman.

When Fike was researching the lost medal he read about the bricks and put two and two together. He called Trinca to tell him he'd traced Bateman's son. The old man cried. "He was always very emotional about what happened," says Fike.

And so it was that on 3 August 2014 Thomas Bateman's Purple Heart was returned to his son in the presence of the soldier who'd held him as he died. "You always want to know more about your dad and the circumstances of his death," says Bateman. "And with John being right there with him, it was amazing to get the whole story."

Thomas Bateman Jr and John Trinca

Thomas Bateman Jr and John Trinca

Also at the ceremony was 74-year-old Thomas McAvoy - if he hadn't found the medal as young boy, Trinca might never have been able to keep his promise.

For Trinca, it meant he could finally let go. "This has been an emotional journey that has taken me 69 years, two months and 13 hours," he said on the day.

He died just over two years later, on 12 September 2016, at the age of 90.

John Trinca at the 2014 ceremony honouring his fellow soldier

John Trinca at the 2014 ceremony honouring his fellow soldier

Team Fike

Fike receives on average three to five medals a week, and has successfully returned 300, travelling more than 100,000 miles across 42 states. He now has an army of volunteers who help him rescue, research and return medals.

Volunteers, like medals, turn up in all sorts of ways.

The value of a medal to a family is priceless, it's like a piece of their loved one that was killed

Last year Fike got a phone call from Mike Brennan (pictured right), a police officer in Madison, Wisconsin. He was looking for the owner of an engraved Purple Heart but couldn’t find anyone of the right name in his area. He got in touch with Fike, who discovered that it belonged to a disabled veteran living in California. So how did it end up nearly 2,000 miles away? Using their combined detective skills, Brennan and Fike pieced together the medal’s unlikely journey. Stolen by an unscrupulous carer, it was thrown from a car, and picked up from the roadside by a hitchhiker - who then lost it in Madison.

Brennan, a veteran of the Gulf War, wanted to return the medal in person, so his colleagues raised the money for flights to LA. He travelled with Fike to meet 69-year-old Craig Hampton, who lost a leg in 1966 after stepping on a landmine. “It meant a lot to this man,” says Brennan. “It was the right thing to do to return it to him properly.”

Craig Hampton

Craig Hampton

They returned three more medals on the same trip, and Brennan was hooked. “You just felt like you were doing such good work,” he says. “The value of a medal to a family is priceless, it's like a piece of their loved one that was killed.”

This is something Brennan understands better than most. His home is decorated with some of the honours awarded to his son, Sergeant Joshua Brennan.

Joshua Brennan

Joshua Brennan

The 22-year-old was killed in Afghanistan in 2007, in an incident that has since become famous. He had been shot nine times, but was still alive, when Taliban fighters tried to capture him. “They were carrying Josh by the hands and feet into the woods,” recounts Brennan. One of the unit’s other men, Sergeant Salvatore Giunta, managed to get him back, but Joshua later died of his injuries. For his bravery, Giunta received the Medal of Honour – the US military’s highest accolade.

Since joining Fike's team, Brennan has returned 14 more medals.

The lost star

Sometimes the reappearance of a lost medal is the spark that unlocks memories an old soldier has never shared.

Recently Fike returned one that had been stolen from a veteran’s sock drawer. It turned out the man had been General George Patton’s driver. “We got to sit down at his kitchen table and for two hours he told us the whole story of how he was wounded,” says Fike. “When he finished I turned to look at his daughter, and she was in tears. She looked at me and said: ‘This the first time he's ever talked about any of that. It's the first time I have ever heard the story.’”

Growing up in a military family, Joyce Fike learned there were some things you just didn’t ask. “It would be rude to ask if they ever killed anyone, or if they were ever scared,” she says. “You generally don't ask how someone was wounded. You don't want to make them uncomfortable and bring it up again.”

Fike's grandfather, Clarence L Hartzell

Fike's grandfather, Clarence L Hartzell

Her own father never spoke about his experiences in World War Two. “I did my job,” is all he would say.

It was the same for most veterans of that war, including Private Bruce Klein, who had fought in the infantry in mainland Europe.

Bruce Klein

Bruce Klein

Klein’s daughters became curious about what he had done in the war. “Dad, were you a hero? Did you get any awards?” they asked. But he just said “No.”

Fike's involvement with the family began last year when he was contacted by staff at a Veterans Affairs office in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A Bronze Star medal, awarded to soldiers for distinguished service, had been discovered gathering dust in a filing cabinet and no-one was sure how it had got there.

It should have been sent to Bruce Klein shortly after the war, but for some reason it wasn't, and now they couldn't trace him.

"Sadly, that family went on to believe that their father hadn't received any awards," says Fike. He found a number for Klein and called the 90-year-old up. "He was completely surprised," he says. "He thought that I had the wrong man, because he had never been awarded a Bronze Star."

It's not uncommon for World War Two soldiers to be unaware that they've earned medals, Fike says. Often they were awarded after the fact, and the news failed to get through.

So Fike said: "No sir, this is definitely your medal, I've confirmed it."

"Well, just mail it to me," Klein said.

"No sir, we can't do that," Fike replied. "I'd be honoured to put this medal on your chest."

As they talked, Fike found out that Klein had served in a well-known unit - the 103rd Infantry Division - that had helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany. So he got in touch with the Holocaust Education Resource Center in Milwaukee, to see whether someone could come to the medal presentation ceremony to talk about Dachau. They said: "We have something better, we actually have two Holocaust survivors that were imprisoned in Dachau."

Lifelong friends Howard Melton and Albert Beder had met as children in the ghetto in Kovno, Lithuania, and were later held in a series of concentration camps. Beder was a couple of years older but Melton lied about his age so he would be allowed to work. "We knew the Germans didn't keep you around if you didn't work for them," he says.

Albert Beder and Howard Melton

Albert Beder and Howard Melton

Towards the end of the war the friends were interned in Dachau, from where they were sent on a death march. They walked for 10 days on meagre rations, and those who fell were left to perish. On the bitterly cold night of 1 May 1945, after an unusually late snowfall, the teenagers lay down on the ground, expecting to die. But the following morning they were woken up by US soldiers, who soon began feeding them hamburgers and chocolate. "We were always really grateful to the American soldiers for liberating us," says Beder. "I tell you, they came just in time because we were starving."

Fike invited Beder and Melton to the ceremony. “They arrived an hour early. They were so excited,” he says.

Al and Howard in 2015

Al and Howard in 2015

“We had a great conversation but suddenly they stopped talking and looked towards the entrance.

“Bruce had walked through the door and they both knew instantly that that was him. They met in the middle of the room. They all embraced and hugged and cried for about two minutes. These men had never met before but they knew exactly what each one represented.

Bruce Klein

Bruce Klein

“Those two men who survived that camp called Bruce their guardian angel, and to bring those three men together was the highlight of this foundation,” says Fike.

They promised to meet again, but to everyone's regret, they did not. Bruce Klein died on 18 May 2016, remaining active – and modest – until the end.

The hoarded dog tags

A few weeks ago, Fike received a package from New Zealand that moved him to tears. It contained the dog tags of a World War Two soldier, Private Stanley Kownacki, and some heartbreaking letters.

When Kownacki went missing in the Pacific in January 1943 his parents, Konstanty and Sylvia, received the telegram that every family dreads. It said their son was missing, presumed dead. Nothing more was known.

But then, almost a year later, the family received a mysterious letter from New Zealand. It was from a soldier in the New Zealand army, Private Leslie Todd, who wrote that he had found Stanley's dog tags in Guadalcanal, a tiny island in the Pacific where 7,000 allied soldiers had been killed during six months of fighting. The family's home address in Erie, Pennsylvania, was on the tags.

Sylvia wrote back immediately, thanking Todd and asking him to please send them to her as soon as possible, she would pay any expenses. But she received no reply.

In November 1944 it was her daughter Theresa's turn to write - Stanley's youngest sister. Her tone was friendly. She was clearly curious about this soldier who might have known her brother. "Did you by any chance meet him there, if you did, how was he? Did he look good? Were you two together for a long time?" she asks.

In fact the two soldiers had never met. Kownacki was killed on 15 January 1943, and Todd arrived on the island in August. The Japanese had retreated by then and Todd would go fossicking - hunting for treasure - around their abandoned trenches and foxholes. It was on one such expedition that he came across Kownacki's belongings. He duly handed some items over to the US command and received a note of thanks for doing so. But for some reason he kept the identity tags.

For two years Stanley's mother and sisters wrote to Todd, by turns charming and pleading.

"I appreciate your writing to me very much but am in suspense not knowing anything about Stan," wrote Sylvia in October 1945. "The boys coming back home tell all kinds of stories, no two alike, so somehow & somewhere I hope there is a chance of him being alive."

It wasn't unusual for families to be left in limbo for years, not knowing what had happened to their loved ones. Stanley's parents clung on to the vain hope that their son might still be alive, as Theresa wrote in May 1946.

"Nearly every day they read his letters and talk about him and hope someday he might come home. Yet every time they read your letter they do not know what to think.

"Their one hope is - if they could only hold those identity discs in their hands, it would be like holding his hand, for we know he must have worn them all through the battle.

"This may sound silly - but sometimes they wonder if you are Stanley writing to us under a different name. I wish that last sentence were true."

But of course it wasn't Stanley, and inexplicably Todd never sent the dog tags. He held on to them until his death in 2004.

"Reading that letter tore my heart out," says Fike. "I'm not sure if we will ever understand why Todd didn't send them."

Not much is known about Todd, except that he was a hoarder - his house was crammed full of stuff. "He was a funny old fellow - reclusive and quiet and private," says his friend David Watson, who has a little museum on Great Barrier Island. He often went to speak to Todd about local history. "I don't think he'd let anyone into his house for decades. He'd come out on to the back deck, and close the door."

Leslie Todd

Leslie Todd

After Todd's death, the dog tags went to a friend, who was deeply moved by the letters. For the next 12 years, he and others, including Watson, did their best to return them. But this time there was no reply to their letters. Not surprisingly, given that six decades had passed, the Kownacki family must have moved away. Todd's friends wrote to the US Embassy in New Zealand and contacted veterans' associations in the US without success.

Then, a few months ago, Watson heard a report about Purple Hearts Reunited on the BBC World Service. He posted the dog tags and letters to Fike, who, true to form, found the Kownackis after a few hours' research.

Stanley's youngest sister Theresa, still alive and in her 90s, was too shocked to speak about those painful memories, and didn't want to meet Fike. He sent her the items by post.

Perhaps holding those silver discs, 73 years later, was like holding Stanley's hand again.

Telling stories

This year Fike was named Soldier of the Year by the Military Times, but not everyone regards him as a hero - to medal collectors he is a menace. Purple Hearts are valuable collector's items, and Fike has been campaigning to stop them from being bought and sold.

"Believe it or not, there's millions of collectors across the country and even overseas that actively pursue these medals and they collect them, trade them, like baseball cards," says Fike. He feels this is wrong - just as he did when he held Corrado Piccoli's Purple Heart in his hand the first time.

"Early on I was very verbal about how I thought it was deplorable to make a profit off anyone that sacrificed their life," says Fike. "It's a national symbol that symbolises someone that shed their blood or gave their life and we should respect that. Who would argue that laying down your life is not the greatest act?"

He has even helped bring about a bill - The Private Corrado Piccoli Purple Heart Preservation Act. It does not ban anyone from owning such medals, just from profiting from their sale.

The idea has dismayed many collectors, who fear the ban could drive the trade underground or abroad and erode public knowledge of military history.

But Fike doesn't buy it. "Some of them will say, 'We want to preserve history, we're not here to make a profit.' But if you buy a medal for $50 and then find out the man fought at Iwo Jima and you turn around and sell it for $750, you're making a profit," he argues.

Even when he knows the soldier's family sold the medal, Purple Hearts Reunited still "rescues" it, he says, "because we still don't believe that the medal should be in somebody's private collection".

Sometimes he sees a medal in a collection online, finds the family it belongs to, then asks the collector to sell it to him for whatever they paid for it, so that he can return it.

But many collectors won't deal with Fike directly, and he now has to rely on intermediaries. His "rescue team" are continually buying medals from online auction sites - last year alone they spent $50,000 (£40,000) on 125 medals. The average posthumous Purple Heart medal on the open market goes for about $300 (£240), but if it has some historical significance it could go for thousands.

On top of the cost of the medals, there are costs associated with framing them and handing them over in person - something Fike has vowed to do ever since that first return of Corrado Piccoli's Purple Heart. He can no longer return all the medals himself, but still travels across the country most weekends, sometimes spending the night in his car rather than paying for a hotel. "I try to pinch as many pennies as possible," he says.

All this has taken a toll on family life, and on his finances. His organisation relies entirely on donations, but occasionally Fike pays for medals out of his own pocket - he has spent thousands of dollars over the years.

There is a sense of urgency, particularly with World War Two medals, as the men who earned them, if they are still alive, may not be around much longer.

Joyce Fike still looks out for medals when she visits antique shops. She doesn't feel as strongly about the issue as her son does, and doesn't get into arguments. "You just buy it and do the right thing with it," she says. "I don't think that you're going to change their mind by talking to them. So you pay for it and say thank you and leave the store."

She is proud of what her son has done for soldiers' families. "He's given them peace because a lot of them just didn't have any information," she says. "They knew that their loved one had passed on, but they didn't know where and how, and he's answered a lot of questions for them."

Perhaps at heart Zachariah Fike is a detective of stories. He sits up half the night searching online for the clues that will link a medal to a soldier, and putting the thread of a narrative together - the battle, the injury, the torpedo or kamikaze attack survived, the act of bravery and the decorations that followed. He reconnects the medal with its story.

Then he tells that story as he returns the medal, and within the family - and sometimes beyond - that story is re-told, honouring the soldier, who may be alive, or long-dead.

"We're preserving history," he says, "through telling their stories."