ANDALUSIA, Ill. — For decades, Jon Nutzman used the old footlocker to store hunting gear.
When Nutzman, 77, came home from Vietnam in 1966, his footlocker was full of memorabilia from the war.
“I shipped a lot of crap home,” he said. “That thing was packed.”
But he rarely gave it a thought except when he took it on hunting trips to store some gear.
Then one day at the end of August — 53 years after leaving Vietnam — Nutzman spotted something in the bottom of the footlocker he’d never noticed.
“At first I thought I’d finally found my dog tags,” the Andalusia man said, referring to the ID tags soldiers wear around their necks listing their names, blood type and religious affilication.
“Then I saw the word ‘Jewish,’ ” Nutzman said. “I’m not Jewish.”
The name on the tags was Harold Brown. At first, it didn’t ring a bell.
Nutzman wanted to find Brown but figured the surname was too common to ever locate him.
But he knew Ken Moffett, another Vietnam veteran and legislative aide to Illinois state Sen. Neil Anderson. The senator is Nutzman’s son-in-law, and Moffett had helped the family cut through red tape several years ago to get Nutzman the Purple Heart he had earned in Vietnam but never received.
He called Moffett.
“I put on my Sherlock Holmes’ hat,” Moffett said. “I love a challenge.”
Both men called synagogues, asking what kind of records were maintained.
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But it was Moffett’s email to the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis that yielded a lead — a retired deputy sheriff in Palm Beach, Fla., had that name.
The sheriff’s office there called retirees and tracked down Brown.
“Next thing I know, Harold Brown calls me, and the first thing he said was, ‘How in the world did you guys find me?’ ” Moffett said.
From his Florida home last week, Brown said he probably would have thought the call was bogus if it hadn’t come from the sheriff’s office.
At first, Nutzman didn’t recognize Brown’s name.
“I had the feeling I should know him,” Nutzman said. “Then he started sending pictures, and I sure did know him. I knew him as Brownie.”
And Brownie had the same experience, saying, “I remembered the name, but I didn’t remember the face until I saw pictures.”
Brownie knew Nutzman as Nutz when the pair served in the Air Patrol — like military police — in the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam.
They lived in the same barracks while stationed in Bien Hoa, but they hadn’t socialized much.
“Let me tell you something that’s weird, though,” Brown said in a phone call Thursday. “About a month before I got the call, I was wondering what happened to my dog tags. It bothered me that I had no idea. I’d moved, downsized, and I’d gone through pretty much everything.
“I just couldn’t remember what I’d done with them. I never slept with them on when we were over there because they were kind of uncomfortable. I figured I must’ve hung them on my bunk.”
The best the men can figure, the blast that shook their barracks in 1965 — and earned Nutzman that Purple Heart — may have had something to do with the dog tags ending up in Nutzman’s foot locker.
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Nutzman had just taken off his boots and set them next to his footlocker. He heard the sound of incoming mortar and someone yelled, “Cut the lights.” He hustled to his feet, went to the wall near his bunk and cut the power.
If he hadn’t done so, he said, he might not have made it home from Vietnam. Shrapnel, glass and wood splinters were embedded in his back, legs and arms. He brought home pieces of his blown-up bunk and the jungle boots he’d taken off the night of the attack.
Brown was thrown out of his bunk but was able to get to the bunker behind the barracks.
“I have no explanation for his dog tags ending up in my footlocker,” Nutzman said. “Explosions create a vacuum, though, and I have to wonder if that’s what happened. They got in there somehow.”
Tags are in the mail
Nutzman will be mailing Brown the long-lost dog tags, along with other keepsakes and photos.
“Eventually, I’d like to meet with him,” Nutzman said. “During that time in the war, you tried not to make many friends.”
As for Brown, he’s not sure what he’ll do with the dog tags.
“I’ll probably hang them with the picture I had taken in my dress blues many years ago,” he said. “I have no family left to give things to.
“Talking to Nutzman, the memories started coming back. I hadn’t thought about Vietnam in many years.”