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Back in the family

Dad’s Army tags found in France 75 years later

GIRARD — Drinking coffee on the morning of Feb. 5, Girard native Frank DeCenso Jr. received a Facebook message that his father’s Army “dog tag” was found in France.

“She asked me if my father fought at Normandy. … I couldn’t believe it, it blew me away,” said DeCenso Jr. “Seventy-five years later and she found me. It’s incredible.”

Frank DeCenso Sr., also native to Girard who died in 2015 at the age of 96, served in the U.S. Army during World War II as a tech sergeant in the 634th Tank Destroyer Battalion, in Europe. He trained with the battalion at Camp Hood, Texas before leaving for England.

Laura Rousseau and her husband were metal-detecting in France when they found a military identification tag with DeCenso Jr.’s parent’s names engraved on it. She sent their son a photo of the tag and a map of where it was found. The dog tag was found about 50 miles from Normandy Beach in the city of Roncey, France.

One side was rusted, but after the rust was cleared, DeCenso Jr. could clearly see that this was his father’s tag.

During this war, the nickname “dog tags” was adopted as they were used to identify casualties. World War II tags stated the soldier’s name, his armed forces serial number and blood type, next of kin in DeCenso’s case — his wife Jane — and address, and the soldier’s religion.

During WWII, military service members were issued an identification tag with a notch on its bottom edge. It was rumored, according to Dennis Yackus, director of education and collections at the Great Lakes Museum of Military History, that the notch’s purpose was, if a soldier found one of his comrades on the battlefield, he could take one tag to the commanding officer and stick the other between the soldier’s teeth to ensure that the tag would remain with the body and be identified.

The official reason for the notch is because of the type of embossing machine used. The machine needed the notch to hold onto the tag while it was stamped. Modern machines do not need the notch.

“He never told me about the tags. He never mentioned losing them,” said DeCenso Jr. “He must’ve been issued a new set because he couldn’t have fought without them.”

He said his father fought “in every major battle.”

DeCenso Sr. was in France, Belgium, and Germany and participated in the Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace, and Central Europe campaigns with the 1st Infantry division.

“He only told funny stories. He didn’t like to talk seriously about it (war),” said his son.

DeCenso Jr.’s favorite story, as told by his father, was about capturing about two dozen German generals after the war ended. His father was in Czechoslovakian airfield riding in a Jeep when he and his friends saw a German plane flying overhead. This confused the men because the war was over. When the plane landed, they drove up to it and he hopped behind the machine gun and aimed it at the plane’s door.

“After two hours, one or two dozen German generals took a chance and came out of the plane,” said DeCenso Jr. His father said this was before the attacks on Japan and even though the war in Europe was over, no one was taking any chances.

Another story was how his father got to go up into Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. He said he could see four countries all at once from up there and even admitted to taking a few mementos from the planning room.

Despite seeing battle constantly, DeCenso Jr. remembers his father telling him: “The worst thing he ever saw was in France when the French people were killing horses to eat because they were starving to death.”

DeCenso Jr. now lives in North Carolina and has other patches and tags from his father’s service. Once he receives the tag, which is being mailed, he plans to put it in a display case. He is very appreciative that this stranger found the tag and was able to track him down, adding another story to his father’s long list.

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