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World War II vet's remains, and those of his wife, finally have an honored resting place

BUSHNELL — The two teenagers got to the cemetery first.

He wore his dark green dress uniform from the National Guard. She wore a long black dress.

They stood on the edge of the road, across from rows of matching military headstones, waiting for the funeral of the man they had never met.

Mike Colt, 19, and his girlfriend, Carol Sturgell, 18, had driven more than an hour from their Tampa homes on Wednesday to be at Florida National Cemetery.

They weren't really sure why they had come. They just knew they had to be here.

"It's kind of sad, huh?" asked Sturgell, scanning the sea of white gravestones.

Colt nodded. "Yeah, but it feels kind of important."

At 12:20 p.m., a Tampa police car pulled up, then a white Lincoln Town Car. Another police cruiser followed. Two officers stepped out.

"Thank you for being here," Colt said, shaking both of their hands.

"No, thank you," said Officer Dan College. "If it weren't for you guys, none of us would be here."

• • •

Three weeks ago, on the last Saturday of November, the young couple was hanging out at Sturgell's house when her brother rode up on his bike, all excited. He had found two fishing poles in this huge pile of trash. Come check it out, he said. So they did.

At the edge of the trash mound, sticking out from beneath a box, Sturgell spied a worn green folder.

She pulled it out, brushed off the dust. Across the top, bold letters said, "Department of Defense." Inside, she found retirement papers from the U.S. Army; a citation for a Purple Heart issued in 1945; and a certificate for a Bronze Star medal "for heroism in ground combat in the vicinity of Normandy, France ... June 1944." In the center of the certificate there was a name: Delbert E. Hahn.

Why would anyone throw that away? Sturgell asked.

And who is that guy? Colt wanted to know. Must be old, a World War II vet. Looks like he served at D-Day!

That night, they took the paperwork back to Sturgell's house and searched Delbert E. Hahn on the computer. Nothing. They talked about who he might have been, the life he might have led.

The next morning, they went back to the trash heap and searched for more clues. They rummaged through boxes, overturned furniture, picked through piles of the past. Colt moved a ratty couch — and something fell out. A metal vase, or box, some kind of rectangular container about a foot tall. On the base was the name: Delbert E. Hahn.

"It's him," Colt told his girlfriend. "This must be him, in his urn."

Sturgell screamed. She didn't want to touch it. It was kind of freaky, she said, discovering the remains of some dead guy.

"He shouldn't be here," Colt said. "No one should be thrown away like that, just left in a parking lot."

The dead man wasn't alone. Under the couch, the couple found two more sets of remains: a cylinder-style container with Barbara Hahn printed on the bottom and another urn, which had no name.

• • •

Tampa Police Cpl. Edward Croissant had just reported for the night shift that Sunday when his officers showed him the urns. This kid and his girlfriend had found them and brought them to the station.

Then an officer told Croissant about the Purple Heart. The Bronze Star. And the Normandy invasion.

And Croissant became irate. He had served eight years in the Navy. He's in the Coast Guard Reserve. "I had three uncles in World War II. That was the greatest generation. If it wasn't for those men, we would have nothing," he said.

"That man saw combat. And someone just dumped him there? He deserves a better ending."

Police called the Department of Veterans Affairs and learned Hahn had died in 1983, at the age of 62 ­— and was a highly decorated war hero. The staff sergeant had served in the infantry and been honored with five Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.

Barbara Hahn, they learned, was the soldier's wife.

So how did their remains end up in that mound of garbage? Where was the rest of their family, or friends, anyone who would want their ashes? And who was in that third urn?

• • •

Neighbors filled in some of the story: Barbara Hahn had been a widow forever, they told police. For years, her mother had lived with her. Her mother's name was Barbara, too.

The elder Barbara had lived to be more than 100. They thought she died around 2000. That third urn, neighbors told police, must be her.

The younger Barbara, the soldier's wife, got sick in 2003. A couple came to care for her, and she wound up willing them her mobile home. When she died, the couple moved in, took out a mortgage, then didn't make payments.

The bank foreclosed on the trailer late last year.

In November, officials sent a maintenance company to clear it out. The workers must have just dumped everything behind the vacant building on Busch Boulevard, neighbors told police. Including the remains of three people.

• • •

Just before 1 p.m. Wednesday, the two teenagers led the car line through Florida National Cemetery. Police followed, then the funeral director who had the urns. Outside a wooden gazebo, two rows of National Guardsmen stood at attention.

The funeral director handed the first soldier a flag, the next one the cylinder with Barbara Hahn's remains, the third one the brass urn with Delbert Hahn.

(Barbara's mother's remains are still in the evidence room of the police station. Since she wasn't a veteran or married to one, she wasn't entitled to be buried in the military cemetery.)

"Let us open the gates of the Lord," said a military chaplain, who led the procession of strangers into the gazebo. "Let us remember," said the chaplain, "none of us lives only unto himself."

The teenagers sat on the front bench. Three officials from Veterans Affairs sat behind them. They had spent weeks searching for the Hahns' relatives, any distant kin or friend, someone who might want their ashes — or at least want to come to their burial.

They couldn't find anyone. Even the couple whom Barbara Hahn had willed her home to didn't show.

By the time the chaplain lifted his head from the Lord's Prayer, a long line of men had wrapped around the gazebo. Wearing blue denim shirts and work boots, they clasped their caps in their hands and bowed their heads. Dozens of groundskeepers from the cemetery had left their Christmas party to come pay respects to the man who, in death, had been so disrespected.

A bugler played taps. The riflemen fired three shots. And 56 people watched the honor guard fold a flag over the urns of the man and woman they never knew.

News researcher John Martin contributed to this story.

World War II vet's remains, and those of his wife, finally have an honored resting place 12/16/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 17, 2009 6:24pm]
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