A Purple Heart awarded to a fallen World War II soldier will begin its journey back to his hometown in Pennsylvania today, but how the medal turned up at a Goodwill store in Lockport is still a mystery.
Goodwill Industries of Western New York will hold a ceremony this afternoon in its Buffalo headquarters at 1119 William St. to present Pvt. James E. Roland’s Purple Heart to the Patriot Guard Riders.
The motorcycle group will deliver the medal Saturday to relatives at Roland’s gravesite in the tiny borough of Westover, Pa., a mining town in Clearfield County, between Punxsutawney and Altoona. Roland’s distant cousin, Mary Roland Struble, is the mayor.
“This is just totally amazing. It makes me very proud,” Struble told the Associated Press on Monday.
Struble, who said her family has a long history of military service, had known about Roland from Westover’s sesquicentennial celebration in 1990. His picture was on the front of the program and his biography was inside.
The medal was discovered June 28 when Goodwill employee Richard Zuehlke opened a gold-trimmed black case that was tucked into a box of household items he was unpacking at the retail store in Lockport. Roland’s name was on the back of the medal and an old photo of him was in the box.
The finding was posted on Goodwill’s Facebook page, where it was spotted by Linda Hastreiter, regional coordinator for the Patriot Guard Riders. It took her a month to track down the soldier’s family.
“The main research centered on Niagara Falls and Lockport,” she said. “I contacted Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, where all the records are for all the veterans, to see where his last known address was.”
Hastreiter then traced him back to Westover and started calling Rolands, eventually reaching Mayor Struble.
She discovered that Roland was born in 1914, had a twin sister and never married.
After graduating from high school in 1933, he took a mechanic’s course in Ohio, then came to Niagara Falls and worked at Duncan Motors before he enlisted in the Army in 1943. He died in battle at Anzio, Italy, on May 23, 1944.
Hastreiter speculated that the Purple Heart was mailed to his former address in Niagara Falls.
Struble suggested that Roland’s twin sister or another relative lived with him in Niagara Falls and had received the medal, then passed it along until its last caretaker died.
“Somebody was probably cleaning out the house and just packed the stuff up to go to the Goodwill,” she said.
Associated Press reports contributed to this story. email: email@example.com