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Iowa couple searches for relatives of town’s WWII veterans

March 30, 2019
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In this Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019 photo, Norm Hill holds the names of two Sutherland men who were killed in World War II during an interview at the General N.B. Baker Library in Sutherland, Iowa. He, his wife, Nancy, and Carolyn Rohrbaugh are searching for relatives of the two men and about 50 others who were listed on a billboard that displayed the names of all Sutherland residents who were serving in World War II. They've already returned approximately 200 of the plaques to families. (Tim Hynds/Sioux City Journal via AP)

SUTHERLAND, Iowa (AP) — Historical finds are called just that for a reason.

If the item or items were out in plain sight, they wouldn’t really be much of a find.

Nancy and Norm Hill found themselves with a new project about a year and a half ago when members of Sutherland’s American Legion post discovered a bit of local World War II history stashed in a closet.

Like many towns during the war, Sutherland had erected a billboard and displayed the names of the local men and women in the military at the time. It stood at the southeast corner of Second and Main streets, bearing the names of dozens of Sutherland’s sons and daughters serving their country.

It’s not clear when Sutherland’s billboard was taken down, but the wooden plaques that displayed each name were removed and stored at the American Legion hall. While Legion members were clearing out the old location, preparing to move into the new R.L. Johannsen Center in town, the plaques were discovered in a closet, where they had been forgotten for about 70 years.

Some weren’t sure what to do with them, but Norm knew.

“They probably would have gotten thrown away, but I said let’s try to find some of these people,” he told the Sioux City Journal. “They didn’t have any place to put them, so they dropped them off at my place.”

Approximately 225-250 of them. Each one a 2-foot-long, 3-inch-wide piece of particle board painted white with the names neatly painted in black.

It was a big stack, but Nancy and Norm Hill started sorting through it to find names they recognized.

The first plaque they returned bore the name Arnold Peters, whose granddaughter lives in Sutherland and was happy to receive it.

“Then we were hooked,” Nancy Hill said.

Nancy began reading old obituaries at the library and running the names through the website findagrave.com to find leads for surviving family members.

They enlisted the help of Carolyn Rohrbaugh, a Sutherland native who knows everybody, according to Nancy Hill.

Rohrbaugh didn’t disappoint.

“Nancy asked me if I would look at these, and I knew a lot of them,” Rohrbaugh said. “I grew up with their children.”

To receive a plaque, a person need only be a relative, no matter how close or distant.

“If they’re a relative, it’s theirs,” Norm Hill said.

Plaques have been returned to three veterans who were still living. Other plaques have been given to spouses, children or other relatives. The Hills have shipped plaques coast to coast, from Washington and Arizona to Texas and Florida.

When contacted, most of the families never knew the plaques existed. Some knew little about the relative whose name was on the plaque.

“We met a gentleman in Spencer to return his uncle’s plaque, he told us he did not know anything about this man,” Rohrbaugh said. “We handed him the story about him being killed (in the war) and he broke down in tears.

“It’s been a good project. I’m really glad I got involved.”

The Hills and Rohrbaugh are down to the last 50 names, and it’s getting harder to find relatives of the remaining men and women, many of whom don’t have family around here anymore.

But that’s not going to stop them.

Nancy Hill put the remaining names on Facebook recently and was able to place a couple more.

Norm, a veteran himself, said they’ll keep searching until every plaque has been returned to a family.

“I thought these should go back to the veterans and their families,” he said.

Back where they belong, a piece of each family’s history, found at last.

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Information from: Sioux City Journal, http://www.siouxcityjournal.com