Returning part of a soldier’s history

Zachary Trussell, Elena Branzaru
Zachary Trussell holds the dog tag he found with his aunt, Elena Branzaru, along the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge. The dog tag now is back with its rightful owner. (Photo by Arthur D. Lauck, used by permission of The Advocate newspaper)

By George Morris

It’s not every day I get asked to help locate someone, not knowing whether or not he is even alive. But when it involves returning a lost dog tag to a soldier? I’m all in.

In 2007, Elena Branzaru and her nephew, Zachary Trussell, were spending Memorial Day in downtown Baton Rouge, Louisiana, when they wandered to the edge of the Mississippi River.

“We were just messing around because we were on the levee,” Branzaru said. “We didn’t know what we were going to find.”

Lying amid broken glass, weeds, litter and driftwood near the Interstate 10 bridge was a dog tag that had been issued to Clarence A. Burke when he enlisted shortly after Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Burke, we would discover, hadn’t lived in Baton Rouge in more than a half-century.

Branzaru, who served in the Marine Corps from 1986 to 1989, recognized that the dog tag was real. She still carried hers. Burke’s tag was considerably weathered, with a dark brown patina on the front and some soil crusted on the back.

In addition to Burke’s name, the dog tag also listed his military service number, his next of kin, Izetta Burke, and a Baton Rouge address, 1040 Main St. They drove there, hoping a family member might still live there.

They found a law office.

They wanted to return it, so Branzaru e-mailed The Advocate, suggesting that a story might turn up Burke or one of his relatives.

Instead, some research turned up Burke himself. City directories from the 1930s and ’40s made it clear that Izetta Burke was Clarence’s mother. My wife, Sandy, who works at the River Center Branch Library, located 1930 Census records that identified the names of Burke’s father, Edward; brother, Robert; and sister, Billie.

With that information, a newspaper database search found the obituary for Robert, who died in Baton Rouge in 2005, that listed Robert’s children. Rabenhorst Funeral Home contacted one of them, Joyce Murphey, of Baton Rouge, who helped me find Clarence Burke in Richardson, Texas.

After joining the Army Air Force, Burke went through a whirlwind basic training in Wichita Falls, Texas, then spent 40 days aboard the Queen Mary from Boston to Australia, where he was stationed for a year. He spent the rest of the war in stateside postings.

After the war, Burke returned to Baton Rouge and worked for National Cash Register until NCR transferred him to Jackson, Miss., in 1950. Except for a brief return to Baton Rouge, Burke has lived elsewhere, mostly in Texas.

Burke was stunned when I called to tell him his dog tag had turned up.

“Oh, my goodness!” Burke said. “For heaven’s sake. I just can’t imagine.”

Burke said he has no idea when his dog tag went missing.

“I’m 85 now, and can’t remember that far back,” he said.

So, how it ended up on the riverbank is a mystery. It might have landed in the city’s Devil’s Swamp landfill, from which rising and falling river levels could have washed it downstream.

Even though that question remains unanswered, Branzaru was happy to have found it. Speaking to Burke by telephone, she got his address and mailed it back to him.

“It’s just a piece of history, and I wanted my nephew to appreciate it, that it’s somebody’s history,” she said. “I now know how much it means to (Burke). He said, ‘I can’t believe you went to so much trouble.’ … If I didn’t have my dog tags and somebody called me 62 years later, you don’t think I would want to see what it looks like?

“We were just playing treasure hunt. The best part of this treasure is it actually gets to be returned to the owner.”

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