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.
He learned that Plenge, approaching his 90th birthday, didn’t have Internet access. Heiser handled the communications. In June 2011, they reached out to Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl (D) and Rep. Sean Duffy (R).
Enter Jenifer Nawrocki, a legislative assistant who handles veterans affairs for Duffy. She started working the phones, getting in touch with the U.S. embassy in Rome. Contact with Bendini had dropped off, and they needed another way to talk with the woman who had the shell casing.
For the next six months, Plenge’s story became a regular topic at staff meetings.
“Where are we on the case?” Duffy would ask.
As all of this went on, Plenge wasn’t getting any younger. But that didn’t stop him from applying to go on an honor flight — a program that flies elderly veterans to Washington, D.C.
Heiser had asked before whether Plenge wanted to do it. Plenge put it off until one day, when he called up Heiser and asked him for help on the application.
“I’ll go, but only if you go,” Plenge told Heiser.
The pair traveled to D.C. in September. They spent much of the day with Nawrocki, who brought them to see the World War II and Vietnam memorials, and they were seen off by Duffy, who promised his office was doing all it could to get the shell back to Plenge.
“I never dreamt I’d have a role in helping someone like Ray,” Duffy said. “He’s the embodiment of what Wisconsin is: nice, caring, affectionate.”
‘It Just Released Him’
In December, Duffy’s staff got word that the mayor of the town that the Italian woman lived in had persuaded her to return the shell.
An employee of the U.S. embassy drove to the town, about four hours north of Rome, to pick it up. The casing was sent back with another embassy employee heading to Dulles International Airport.
The office sent an email to Plenge’s family and Heiser, letting them know that the shell was en route to the United States.
Plenge had been hospitalized days before. Heiser and the family talked about whether they should tell Plenge.
“We decided that we should,” Heiser said. “We thought it might give him hope.”
The next day, Dec. 13, Plenge died.
Stout said her father had been in physical pain, but a weight had been lifted off his shoulders when he heard that the shell was coming back.
“He had achieved his goal,” she said. “Once he knew it was on its way, it just released him.”
‘An Emotional Day’
The task at hand for Duffy’s office quickly changed. The case arrived midweek and it needed to be in Wisconsin by Friday, the day of Plenge’s funeral.
Nawrocki volunteered to take the case to Wisconsin. She met with Stout, the rest of the Plenge family and Heiser on the day of the funeral.
“It was an emotional day,” Nawrocki said. “But it brought them so much peace. It made all the work worth it.”
For Stout, those last few days were traumatic. After her father’s death, her mother, Shirley, injured herself in a fall and the family wasn’t sure whether she would make it through Plenge’s funeral.
Yet only one word could describe how the family felt when they finally saw the casing, she said. Amazement.
As for Heiser, the whirlwind of the past six months had come to a close and here, in front of him, was the result of all the emails and phone calls. “I wish we had gotten it earlier,” Heiser said. “But now it’s real.”
The shell casing is in Shirley Plenge’s possession. The family hasn’t decided what to do with it. Perhaps keep it and pass it around to the children. Maybe donate it to a museum in the future.
But for now, they can see it and touch the story that Plenge told across the decades.
Correction: Jan. 19, 2012
The story incorrectly stated that only the office of Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) responded to a request for assistance from the family of World War II veteran Ray Plenge in his search for a souvenir shell casing from the war. The office of Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) also responded, and Plenge and Tom Heiser did not contact the office of Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).