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Mail call brings former corpsman unexpected treasure.

This story has all the elements of a best-selling Brad Thor novel.

A mysterious bracelet stamped with a four-digit code and the words "Stalag Luft 1." A World War II (WW II) B-24 pilot, shot down over Europe, into the waiting arms of German soldiers. The diary of an Army troop commander aboard a U.S. Navy ship sailing in Nazi submarine infested waters. And me, at the time a Pentagon-bound Navy captain working with researchers at the National Archives and a Department of Defense (DoD) communication security and unmanned aircraft logistics planner. All tied together by an introspective daughter-in-law who found herself as the family icon presiding over a priceless cache of military memorabilia from two wars.

Only this story is true. Seventy years later, a tangible link to wartime service and sacrifice made its way back to the family of a WW II hero.

The story began in 1945, with battle-hardened Army Maj. Charles Keeley. Maj. Keeley led a machine gun company in the trenches of World War I (WW I), earning a Purple Heart, three combat campaign stars, and valor awards from the French government. After the war, he became a successful businessman.

Years later, when WW II began, he raised his hand again and served as a troop commander on multiple allied troop ships, making dozens of trans-Atlantic voyages across dangerous waters.

In 1945, Maj. Keeley was troop commander aboard USS Monticello (AP 61), a U.S. Navy troop transport ship. After disembarking soldiers and repatriated prisoners of war (POWs) in New York, he was not happy with the condition of his spaces on board. His diary noted that the troops "... left a filthy ship. Lots of equipment, blankets, shoes, towels, everything."

Among the items left behind, Maj. Keeley discovered a bracelet, encoded with the digits "4528" and the words "Stalag Luft 1." Recognizing its importance, he kept the POW bracelet in his collection of wartime souvenirs.

Maj. Keeley died tragically in a brush fire in 1977, and over the years Keeley's family pondered the bracelet's fate and to whom it belonged. Maj. Keeley's daughter-in-law contacted my father, Harry Thetford Sr., a retired store manager and former Marine. Thetford's hobby is researching WW II history, and he has written numerous articles about veterans. Grasping for straws and low on options, she hoped Thetford could locate the owner of the POW bracelet.

An internet search revealed the names of many Stalag Luft 1 prisoners, as well as many POW numbers, but no match for POW 4528.

The senior Thetford contacted me while I was serving as a Supply Corps officer on the Navy staff. I contacted the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, and an employee dug into the records at the National Archives. A short time later, the office was able to tie the POW number 4528 to a name--1st Lt. Richard Heckler.

Armed with a name, the "Thetford team" scoured the internet with high hopes of quickly locating either the former POW himself, or his immediate family. We quickly discovered information regarding Heckler. He retired from the U.S. Air Force as a lieutenant colonel in 1962, and passed away in 1976, leaving behind a wife and three children.

The names of his wife and children were found, but there the trail went cold. The internet and social media leads did not pan out.

On a whim, my father published an article on New Year's Day, 2014 in the Greensboro, N.C., newspaper about the bracelet and the search for the family. The response was immediate and surprisingly robust! We soon had the phone number to Heckler's daughter, now living in Alaska.

At first, Heckler's daughter suspected a scam, and was not receptive to learning about the bracelet. Eventually she opened up, and referred us to Heckler's son, living in Montana. His son also suspected a scam, and was hesitant to discuss the matter. After lengthy discussion, however, he opened up and referred us to Heckler's grandson, who considered 1st Lt. Heckler a personal hero.

We contacted Heckler's grandson and he was very happy to learn of his grandfather's POW bracelet. He had recently separated from the Navy to pursue his college education in Alaska. His last Navy assignment was as a corpsman serving aboard USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69).

The story of 1st Lt. Richard Heckler was starting to come together.

Army Air Corps 1st Lt. Richard Heckler was a rookie B-24 pilot assigned to a bomb group in England. On April 8, 1944, with two missions under his belt, he was assigned to fill in as co-pilot on board the "Mammy Yokum" for another pilot who took a 24-hour pass. For that pilot, it turned out to be a "million dollar pass."

While on the bombing run over Germany, the "Mammy Yokum" was shot down by flak and German fighters. Of the 10 aircrew, four, including 1st Lt. Heckler, who was wounded, made it out safely. He and the other survivors were quickly captured by German soldiers and whisked away to the German POW camp named Stalag Luft 1. Stalag Luft 1 was used primarily for allied officers and aircrew due to their potential intelligence value to the Nazis.

In May 1945, 1st Lt. Heckler and more than 9,000 other POWs were repatriated from Stalag Luft 1 by allied forces. He was shipped home aboard the U.S. Navy ship USS Monticello (AP 61), possibly under the experienced guidance of Troop Commander Maj. Charles Keeley. On June 3, 1945, 1st Lt. Heckler arrived in Staten Island.

Somewhere on that voyage, either by accident or by design, Heckler lost his POW bracelet. For 70 years it sat in a Greensboro, N.C. home, a mysterious piece of wartime memorabilia the Keeley family wished to return to the proper family.

On Jan. 14, 2014 the bracelet arrived in Anchorage, Ala. In the hands of Richard Heckler, former Navy corpsman and grandson of 1st Lt. Richard Heckler, the POW bracelet had finally arrived home.

Capt. Harry Thetford Jr., SC, USN

Chief Staff Officer, Fleet Readiness (OPNAV N43A)
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Author:Thetford, Harry, Jr.
Publication:Navy Supply Corps Newsletter
Date:Mar 1, 2014
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