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After World War II ended, Ray Plenge didn’t tell many stories. But those who were close to him knew this one.
It was 1945 and the Germans were on the retreat. Cpl. Plenge, then in his early 20s, was traveling through northern Italy with his unit when he came across a howitzer shell casing.
It was pure brass and measured about 12 inches tall, 6 inches wide. He decided to have it engraved with the names of his unit members, a memento of his time in Europe.
A local jeweler etched the unit’s nickname, “the Thirsty 3rd,” and each unit member’s name into the casing. The last name on the list was Plenge’s.
But Plenge’s backpack and the shell within it disappeared at some point while the unit marched through Europe.
For the next 65 years, he told his wife, children and friends about this lost shell.
“It’s a story we always heard,” said Plenge’s daughter, Rena Stout.
Then, in 2010, Plenge received a letter from an Italian man, Giancarlo Bendini, who had found and returned other lost possessions to members of the 10th Mountain Division Association. (Former Sen. Bob Dole fought with the 10th.)
Bendini described a shell that had been found during some construction work and was now owned by an Italian woman. The casing had names engraved on it, including Plenge’s, the letter said. Because Plenge was the only person on the shell who was a registered member of the association, Bendini got in touch with him.
Bendini didn’t know he had found the man who had made the shell what it was.
Plenge didn’t sleep that night, Stout said. He was so excited that the casing was still around. He spent the next several months exchanging letters with Bendini and admiring photos of the casing that were sent to him.
But the woman didn’t want to just give the casing away. She wanted to make sure it went to the right person.
‘Where Are We on the Case?’
Tom Heiser met Ray and Shirley Plenge at a senior citizen dining site a year ago. They traded war stories, Heiser from his days in Vietnam, Plenge from his in WWII. And, of course, Plenge told Heiser about the shell. Heiser was fascinated by the story.
Heiser suggested Plenge get in touch with Congress. “Why don’t you just take a shot?” he asked.
That’s when Heiser decided that the shell was important. It mattered to Plenge, so it mattered to him.