It began as a way to learn more about the uncle he never knew.
What it became for Phil Rosenkrantz was a mission to bring his uncle, a World War II paratrooper who died in combat, home to rest.
In his recently released book, “Letters from Uncle Dave: The 73-Year Journey to Find a Missing-in-Action World War II Paratrooper,” Rosenkrantz chronicles the story of how his research led him to people who were already searching for his uncle’s remains and who found him in January 2018. Bringing him home and burying him in Riverside National Ceremony in July 2018 gave the family long-desired closure.
“I had told myself that if we ever find him, bring him home and bury him, I am going to drop everything and write a book,” Rosenkrantz says. “I had to put my money where my mouth is.”
The professor emeritus of industrial and manufacturing engineering who initially retired in 2017 but later resumed teaching at Cal Poly Pomona in 2019, had grown up knowing about his Uncle Dave, the sixth child of 11 in the Rosenkrantz family. Everyone called his uncle a war hero because of his role in capturing 200 Italian soldiers in Sicily, but no one knew what happened to him when he went missing. Rosenkrantz’s father, Harry, was the youngest sibling and always said that David was like a father to him.
It wasn’t the stories alone that made him want to look deeper into what happened to his uncle, however. A Hollywood movie – the 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan” – also played a part.
The plot of the film involved a private serving in World War II who had three brothers who had died in the war. Rosenkrantz’s Uncle Dave had three other brothers serving at the same time. Also, one of the lead characters was Jewish. Uncle Dave was Jewish.
The parallels between the movie and real life prompted Rosenkrantz to start searching the internet to see what he could find about what happened to Uncle Dave, a staff sergeant in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.
“The family wondered when he went missing in action if he was captured,” Rosenkrantz says. “Was he a POW? Was he tortured? You have all of these ideas in your mind. No one ever found peace.”
Rosenkrantz discovered a website dedicated to the 504 Infantry Regiment unit, of which his uncle was a part. It had a casualty list. His uncle was listed as missing in action Sept. 28, 1944. He also found out that his uncle’s name was memorialized on the Wall of the Missing at the Netherland American Cemetery. Rosenkrantz reached out to the man who put together the website seeking the email addresses of anyone who knew his uncle.
He emailed 10 on the list and about three weeks later, Rosenkrantz received a response from a man who said he had been looking for the family members of Uncle Dave. He connected Rosenkrantz with a man who witnessed his uncle’s death.
Rosenkrantz learned that his uncle was involved in a counteroffensive by German troops while out on patrol with his unit and was fatally shot. His fellow soldiers were in the process of retreating at the time of the shooting, and when they went back to get Uncle Dave’s body, it was gone.
With photos from relatives and several servicemen that served with his uncle, Rosenkrantz made a website. He started collecting letters, memorabilia and more photos from family members.
Rosenkrantz began participating in various events for WWII soldiers, and in 2003, he met several veterans who knew his uncle. He also went to the Netherlands in 2004, 2009, 2014 and 2019 to visit the spot where his uncle was killed, including the site of a field grave—where his uncle’s remains were temporarily located at one time.
In 1999, he connected with a Dutchman who had an interest in looking for American servicemen missing in action. One of those he searched for was Rosenkrantz’s uncle. It was the Dutchman who eventually tracked Uncle’s Dave’s remains to an American cemetery about 90 miles from where he died, and after getting authorities involved, the remains were located, flown to the United States in 2018 and the identity confirmed with a DNA test.
On July 20, 2018, the Rosenkrantz family had a funeral for Uncle Dave.
The book touches some on leadership, as paratroopers were a new invention for WW II, Rosenkrantz says. Learning about paratroopers and how they were trained and deployed was very interesting. They were tougher and more skilled than regular infantry, he adds.
However, the main purpose of the book is healing for his family and others like his.
Rosenkrantz says his grandmother always believed that her son was alive. She was already going through so much loss and pain before Dave went missing. Her first child, Hannah, died at age 12 of the Spanish flu. A second daughter was killed in 1942 when she was hit by a car. She had four sons in the war at the same time.
“She went through hell, and she was never the same after all of those tragedies,” Rosenkrantz says. “The book is intended to help people understand what families are going through and maybe give some hope.”