WATERTOWN – To Mary J. Strotkamp of Centralia, Kan., her uncle was just a mysterious, tall soldier who smiled back at her in a sepia-toned photograph.
Letters, childhood pictures and all other family mementos of Pfc. Alvie Leroy Scott, who was killed in action during World War II, had been destroyed in a house fire in the 1950s.
But his widow in Watertown kept her war hero’s memorabilia safe – including his Purple Heart. Now, 69 years later, it will be returned to the family on Saturday by Army Capt. Zachariah L. Fike, whose mother found the items stored in a box at a local antique shop.
“It’s exciting to finally get to know my uncle. My dad would’ve been thrilled, but he passed in ’99,” Strotkamp said. “There were never any personal items the family had. We had one photograph of him in his uniform. And that’s all we ever knew of this mysterious, tall youth – that photograph and stories Dad told of him.”
Fike, a member of the Vermont National Guard, said his mother, Joyce L. Fike, Dexter, stumbled upon the mementos in November while shopping for a Christmas present for him – just like the way she discovered Pvt. Corrado A.G. Piccoli’s Purple Heart in 2009.
“She found them in a different antique shop; not sure which one, as there are about six in the Watertown area,” said Zachariah Fike, a military memorabilia collector and founder of the nonprofit Purple Hearts Reunited.
In the box his mother found everything from the Purple Heart certificate to letters from the War Department, the flag that had been placed on Scott’s coffin and pictures and telegrams that his widow, the late Esther E. Bates Scott of Watertown, had kept for more than three decades until her death.
Scott, a paratrooper with the 513th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 17th Airborne Division, was killed in action Jan. 24, 1945, in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge.
He was born Oct. 4, 1919, in Mildred, Kan., and his remains were buried in the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial in Luxemburg City.
Strotkamp said her uncle met his wife in the north country while stationed at Pine Camp – now known as Fort Drum – for training.
“They married in March of ’44 and he was shipped out in August. So it was only five or six months that they were together,” Strotkamp said. “She never remarried. She remained a widow all those years and she kept all of his stuff. Once she passed, in the 1980s, her nieces and nephews sold her estate.”
A Purple Heart recipient himself, Fike has spent the past few years returning lost or stolen medals to family members.
Fike, a 1999 graduate of Carthage High School who now lives in Georgia, Vt., earned a Purple Heart after being wounded in a rocket blast on Sept. 11, 2009, in Afghanistan.
Entirely through donations and volunteer work, Fike holds return ceremonies free of charge to bring families closure and to honor those who died fighting for their country.
After holding his first medal return ceremony in 2011 in Watertown for surviving family members of Piccoli, who died in 1944 in France during World War II, Fike started Purple Hearts Reunited Inc. the following year and has held more than 80 ceremonies to date.
He does not seek compensation for his work, which involves 21 hours of research a week and plenty of airplane flights. Fike also said he is not interested in charging families for the cost of purchasing some of the items – such as the collection of Scott’s memorabilia, which cost $500 at the Watertown antique shop.
“We’re receiving three to five medals a week because of the national attention we’ve received. I’m actually looking to hire a full-time employee. And I have a potential volunteer to do some of the return ceremonies in my stead,” Fike said.
Scott’s medal will be returned to his family by Fike at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Miss.
“I don’t know how you repay someone for something like this. It’s just amazing,” Strotkamp said. “He’s a unique individual, that’s for sure. His dedication to this cause, his devotion to his country and to the people who served this country just staggers the imagination. My whole family is very grateful.”