Researcher provides answers for families of long-lost war dead

Lynne Gill with a photograph her uncle Ed Gondolf, an Army private from Camden who died in France during World War II.
Lynne Gill with a photograph her uncle Ed Gondolf, an Army private from Camden who died in France during World War II.
Posted: June 10, 2014

When Army Pvt. Ed Gondolf was killed in fighting outside Lemberg, France, during World War II, his family in Camden wasn't told much about what happened.

But they never gave up trying to find out.

Relatives gathered information on their own over the years, then Gondolf's niece Lynne Gill asked a military casualty researcher to help and was stunned by the results.

Gill received more than 300 pages of documents that laid out her uncle's service, provided details of his last day - and stirred in Gondolf's surviving brother and other relatives feelings of pride.

"I definitely got a sense of what he did . . . that he was a brave man," said Gill, a former Hi-Nella resident and Collingswood High School graduate who lives in Annapolis, Md. "I saw how much of a hero he really was."

The story of Gondolf, who was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for gallantry, is one of more than 1,600 researched by Bill Beigel, a kind of cold-case detective.

He has found that families - even relatives born after the service members were lost - still long for information 70 years after the combat deaths.

"It's absolutely gratifying to get the thank-you notes," Beigel said. "The people never knew what happened to their father, grandfather, uncle, brother, or neighbor.

"Little information was given out by the military," he said. "All the families learned was that [the service member] was missing in action and that would be it."

Finally learning about their relatives "is emotional for the families. One client told me, 'It was more than I bargained for,' " he said.

A former contract manager for a southern California gas company, Beigel felt drawn to historical research at an early age. At 13, he recalls being mesmerized by a photograph of a B-17 bomber dubbed Wee Willie plummeting to the ground over Germany a month before the Nazi regime surrendered.

"The photo was in a Time-Life history of the war that included pictures of Eisenhower, Stalin, and others," said Beigel, 56, of Torrance, Ca. "But there was something about the B-17 photo that stayed with me.

"I wondered about the guys in the plane that was smoking and spinning out of control," he said. "Who were they? What happened to them?"

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in history and master's in geography from UCLA years later, Beigel began asking questions again, this time when his father, Harvey, a Korean War veteran, talked to him about a cousin who was lost in World War II.

Morris Meyers "had been like a big brother to him and I decided to find out what I could for my dad's birthday," he said. "I started digging into it and found that [Meyers] was on a B-17 that went down in a storm west of Scotland in 1943.

"My father thought he had been shot down over Germany," Beigel said. "He was delighted - and found closure - though it was bittersweet."

Beigel's continued interest in the research led him on his own to check out other veterans who were killed in action but never given their due. He found cases on the guest books and bulletin boards of Internet sites devoted to World War II military units.

"People were looking for information" about a father, grandfather, uncle, or brother, he said. "I started answering them, then set up my own website so people could send me inquiries."

Beigel obtains copies of detailed after-action reports from the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Md., and checks other sources before translating the military jargon into a readable two- to four-page summary. (The cost for his time, the summary, and copying and mailing expense usually runs about $175).

In Gondolf's case, he found "the records for the unit for the day he was killed. We found out what they were doing that day," Beigel said. "It really put it in perspective.

"The reports are usually written by a staff sergeant or lieutenant and have a real feel of the truth," he said. "They are a great description of what was going on."

Gondolf, 31, a member of the 399th Infantry Regiment, was guarding his platoon's left flank when he crawled 300 yards under heavy fire to attack a German self-propelled gun. His fire forced the enemy to withdraw and helped his unit capture strategically important ground.

But during the fight, Gondolf was fatally wounded in the face by German fire.

When the details of what happened came to his niece Lynne Gill in 2005, she quickly shared them with her uncle's surviving brother, Donald, who was moved by the findings.

He "got a map and followed the troop movements" using Beigel's report, said Gill, 69, whose father had died earlier. "It was worth it just to see the look on my uncle's face. It filled things in for him."

Gill's son, David, then 33, also swelled with pride. "He really thinks his Uncle Ed is a hero," she said. Gondolf, who is buried in Beverly National Cemetery in Burlington County, "saved the lives of others through his actions," she said.

Beigel has researched the stories of dozens of New Jersey veterans, including Daniel Booth of Gloucester City, a member of an Avenger torpedo bomber crew assigned to the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga. The query this time, though, did not come from family.

"My client was a pilot for Cathay Airlines based in Hong Kong," Beigel said. "He was interested in a series of aircraft strikes in the Hong Kong area in 1945."

Booth's plane was hit by enemy fire and went down off the coast of China. The crew's remains were never recovered.

During research on Army Sgt. Walter Gudenburr, whose family lived in Homestead, Pa., Beigel found another story of heroism. Gudenburr was killed in 1945 during fighting at Fort Stotsenburg on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. He was awarded the Silver Star.

"I got a letter from his nephew in McMurray, Pennsylvania," Beigel said, "and it read, 'It's a shame we never had an opportunity to meet him, but like so many men from his generation, they gave everything to defend our country. I only wish this generation understood more of what these men did for us.' "

For Beigel, the long hours of work had paid off.

"I enjoy the research," he said. "I even dream about these guys sometimes. I have a very deeply felt connection."

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