Tales from the Trenches
The following article by Daniel Radosh was published in the September 1997 edition of Connect Time magazine.
As a young man, R. Bruce Watkins of Amston, Conn., used to hold his daughter, Sue, spellbound with tales of World War II. He had survived the horrific battle of Peleliu, a monthlong, close-quarters fight over a hunk of South Pacific coral that claimed the lives of 20,000 American and Japanese soldiers. In the years after the war, Watkins told of the heroic men in his Marine platoon: Benton "Monty" Montgomery, Steve Stasiak and especially John Kincaid, who on a single night had saved his life--and been saved by Watkins--almost more times than they could count.
"I started wanting to find these guys even then," says Sue, now Sue Donnelly, an administrative services specialist at the University of Connecticut. "My dad had tried after the war, but it was impossible. He finally had to give up. They'd completely lost touch."
In 1994, the 50th anniversary of Peleliu spurred Watkins, now in his 70s, to write his memoirs. He also renewed his efforts to find his buddies. It had not gotten any easier. "The military didn't seem to have any records," Donnelly says. "Unless you have their service number you can't find out anything....The only thing you could do was call up information in the towns where you had last known them to be." That got them nowhere. The operator had never even heard of Eggertsville, John Kincaid's tiny hometown in upstate New York.
Last year, however, Donnelly's office entered the Internet age. She soon discovered Yahoo! People Search, one of several white pages services that compiles phone books from the entire country. Unfortunately, there were no listings for either Benton Montgomery or Steve Stasiak. And there were way too many for John Kincaid. "There was no way I could pin it down," Donnelly says. "We even sent out postcards to hundreds of these people."
As she learned more about the Web's capabilities, she became convinced the solution was online. Donnelly spent her lunch hours combing for clues on any Web page having to do with World War II or the Marines. "I surfed like a madwoman," she says with a laugh. "I kind of got obsessed with it." Slowly, her obsession paid off. One Marine's personal homepage contained a link to a site called The Seeker, a bulletin board site like BirthQuest but with a broader scope, including a section devoted to finding military comrades.
Donnelly searched for postings from or about her father's platoon-mates. There were none, so she wrote her own, giving his name and theirs and the dates and places they served. One month later, she opened her e-mail to find a message from a Marine who had found her blurb. He had served with Monty Montgomery in a different outfit.
He told them that, sadly, Montgomery had passed away in 1987. However, he was able to help them get in touch with Montgomery's widow. A short time later, Watkins visited Mrs. Montgomery in North Carolina. He returned home to his daughter carrying a prize: the platoon roster that the Montgomerys had saved all these years. The roster contained two important pieces of information: Steve Stasiak's real first name, Arthur, and John Kincaid's middle name, Oliver.
"I came in first thing in the morning, popped them in ¬Yahoo! People Search| and only one came up under each," Donnelly says. "I went nuts in here screaming my head off: 'This has to be them! This has to be them!'" It was them.
"I called John that night," Watkins remmbers. "He picked up the phone and I said, 'I hope you remember your old lieutenant.'" He did. Kincaid, now living in Montana, is ill with Parkinson's disease and was unable to talk for very long. "He didn't remember some things," Watkins says of the bittersweet conversation. "But he remembered that night ¬in the battle| very well."
Later Watkins dialed Steve Stasiak. "He said, 'Oh, my God, you made my year!'" Watkins' thoughts on the Internet? "I think it's amazing."