- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

The lost stories of America’s greatest generation are like an Agatha Christie mystery waiting to be solved, says a New Jersey historian visiting the District this weekend for the dedication of the National World War II Memorial.

Historian Richard V. Horrell, 49, started a historical detective agency called “WW2 Connections” in January 2003 to seek out the stories of servicemen who died on the war’s forgotten battlefields or who lived on as veterans too shellshocked to discuss their experiences.

“I owe [them] my life,” Mr. Horrell said. “We all do. Had they not done what they did, we’d be speaking German or Japanese today.”

Mr. Horrell has written 125 “veteran’s profiles” for wives, children and grandchildren from more than 25 states. He has dedicated his work to his late father, Vernon A. Horrell, an Army Ordnance Corps technical sergeant who lost two fingers at the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy.

“As a boy, I could see my father’s fingers missing whenever we were working on a car,” Mr. Horrell said. “It was a constant reminder of the war.”

The profiles, up to 40 pages long, require research into primary sources such as soldiers’ journals, records from the National Archives and records from Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania, a repository for military documents.

Mr. Horrell charges $29.95 to $129.95 for the finished product, which includes narratives, maps, orders of battle, photos of weapons and locations, insignia and awards.

Elaine Roach, 57, of Lake Isabella, Calif., said she faced several unanswered questions after her father, Harold Silva, who had been a staff sergeant in the Army, died of a heart attack in 1989.

“We found his discharge papers, ribbons and medals, but we didn’t know what he did,” Mrs. Roach said. “My dad didn’t talk much about the war. He contracted malaria and it was not a pleasant experience for him.”

After seeing a magazine advertisement promising information about veterans, Mrs. Roach said, she contacted Mr. Horrell’s agency. She said Mr. Horrell told her exactly where her father had served with the 613th Field Artillery Battalion.

“I’m very happy with Mr. Horrell’s work,” she said.

Conrad Zagwyn, 67, of Pembroke, Mass., said Mr. Horrell answered lifelong questions about Mr. Zagwyn’s Dutch immigrant father, Peter Zagwyn, who was an Army sergeant major.

“I had no idea what he [did] in the war, because my parents were estranged,” Mr. Zagwyn said. “Richard found everything within three months.”

Dorcas Donovan, 48, of Spirit Lake, Iowa, said her father — Petty Officer 2nd Class Joseph Franken, 83, now a dementia patient at Hilltop Nursing Home in Spirit Lake — was one of three persons to escape the engine room of the USS Vincennes when it sank during the naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

She said Mr. Horrell told her that her father had spent 10 hours in the water and gave her other details of the battle.

“My dad, like many veterans, didn’t talk about the horrible experiences he had,” Mrs. Donovan said.

Mr. Horrell, who compares his work to “an Agatha Christie mystery,” said he came to this work late in life.

He grew up in the St. Louis area, where he received a bachelor’s degree in European history from Webster College. In May 2002, he moved to Hopatcong, N.J., after colon cancer ended a 14-year career as a park ranger at the Gateway Arch.

“My successful surgery and chemotherapy was a wake-up call to put my life and my time to better use,” he said.

Mr. Horrell said he is attending this weekend’s dedication of the National World War II Memorial to promote his business (found online at www.ww2connections.com) and to pay tribute to his father and his wife’s uncle Walter, who was lost in the Solomons campaign.

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