Woman's search for soldier an uphill battle

May 24, 2008|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

Who is Walter Gray, and where is he?

All that's known are his name and hometown, Baltimore, written on the back of a watercolor portrait of him as a young soldier during World War II. It was painted about 1944 in a hospital in New Guinea, where, presumably, Gray was recovering from battle wounds.

Six decades later, Diane Pirzada is looking for him.

Her search has unearthed three other Walter Grays in Maryland who served their country in that war - but not the one in the portrait.

Pirzada, a 42-year-old mother of three in Lockwood, Calif., came across Gray's portrait and those of about a dozen other servicemen in 2004, while browsing through an antiques store in Monterey's Cannery Row. She'd been looking for a World War II-era nurse's uniform to wear at a Valentine's Day "sweetheart dance" in which everyone was to dress up in 1940s attire.

By chance, the store had just acquired some items from the estate of Rosabell Hamann, a Minnesota woman with a faculty for portraiture who had served in the Pacific as a Red Cross volunteer during the war and later worked as an instructor at Monterey Peninsula College. She had died, at 87, the year before Pirzada walked into the antiques store. There was no uniform, but Pirzada found a trove of other items, including Hamann's military dog tags, Red Cross pins, some photographs and the portraits she had painted of servicemen she had cared for and gotten to know.

Pirzada bought it all. She figured that the men, if they had survived the war and lived still - and if she could find them - might like to have their portraits. And so began her quest, made more urgent by the knowledge that, by one estimate, more than 1,000 World War II veterans die every day.

"I felt called to do it," Pirzada, a 42-year-old divorcee and former TWA flight attendant, said by phone last week. "I had no idea what I would find."

At the beginning, it was relatively easy.

The first former soldier she tried to reach, Joseph Settimio, was listed on the back of his portrait as hailing from Follansbee, W.Va., and still lived there.

Settimio immediately recalled the "petite gal from Minnesota" who had painted his portrait as he lay in a hospital bed after being wounded in New Guinea, Pirzada said.

Before the call about the portrait, Settimio's wife, Gerri, and their seven children had been somewhat in the dark about his time at war. But in a letter to Pirzada in June 2004, Gerri Settimio wrote, "Joe really opened up after he talked to you, and he told us many stories about his experiences in the service that had been locked up and that needed to come out. The children are so proud of him for serving his country as he did."

In a measure of his new openness, Settimio's daughter Lori made a display case for his service medals, and the children presented it to him on Father's Day that year.

Pirzada also tracked down the daughter of Howard Munns, whose portrait identified him as from Janesville, Wis., and who had retired and died in Tucson, Ariz.

She found the wife of Tony Dawes in Farmington, N.M., and was informed that he was "not doing well." He has since passed away.

Another of the portrait subjects, Bill Ward, from Chester, Pa., had died in 1984, a fact unknown even to his estranged son, Bill Ward IV, who had not heard from his father in 35 years. A story about Pirzada's quest in The Delaware County Times prompted the younger Ward to re-establish contact with other relatives of his father and, as Pirzada put it, to "fill in the blanks."

Her search in Maryland for Walter Gray has been fruitless in the sense that she has yet to find the thin-nosed, dark-haired man in the portrait, but, she said, it has yielded inspiring connections with veterans of the same name.

Pirzada was particularly moved by a conversation with a Walter Gray who was born in South Baltimore and now, at 81, lives in Forest Park. She knew he was not the one she sought when his wife of 49 years, Eula, told her he is black - the man in the portrait is white - although he did serve in the Pacific with the Army, in a segregated unit.

"I learned a bit of what it must have been like to serve as an African-American in World War II," Pirzada said. "They were really special people."

Eula Gray said she and Pirzada "developed a relationship and ended up corresponding" after the initial phone call from California. "And she did the nicest thing," Eula Gray said, describing Pirzada's mailed gift of a pair of Christmas-tree decorations in the form of doves.

The segregated unit in which Gray served was the 24th Infantry Regiment, which was stationed in the Philippines - "Manila was in real bad shape," he said - before being sent to the Kerama Islands off Okinawa in July 1945. The regiment accepted the first formal surrender of a Japanese Imperial Army garrison, on Aka Shima Island, and was posted on Okinawa, which he said had been "leveled" by American bombing, until late in 1946.

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