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21Country: Belgian metal detector returns dog tags of late veterans to families in Fort Wayne, New Haven

World War II artifacts found in Brussels
Updated: May. 19, 2022 at 5:30 PM EDT
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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WPTA21) - For the past four years, Randy Buelens has spent every moment of free time, metal detecting an undisclosed location — not far from his home near Brussels, Belgium. What started as a hobby, evolved into an obsession, as he began to find artifacts tied to World War II and the Battle of the Bulge. But finding items wasn’t the end of it, he wanted to learn everything about them, and the soldiers they were connected to.

“When I found out about a U.S. Army camp close to where I live,” Buelens told us. “At first, I didn’t find a lot… I found stuff like coins, shell casings, but after a while, I started finding helmets, badges, dog tags, and from then on it just started rolling!” Dog tags, are easily his favorite. He loves how he can find something that tells him who they belonged to, but it wasn’t until he found veteran Edward DeWayne Snell’s, that he was able to research so much about one person. Buelens stumbled across a book written about Snell’s time in the army, titled, III Years, III Months, III Days: The Odyssey of Edward DeWayne Snell, Iron Man of Metz, Victory Division 1942-1945. “I immediately bought it of course, because I wanted to know the story behind it, and when I read it for the first time, I really cried,” Buelens said. “It’s just the complete story from start to end, what these men experienced overseas in Belgium.

At this point, the Belgian had collected twelve dog tags. He felt at this time, it was necessary to start reuniting them with the veterans’ families. He reached out to Michael Flora, who wrote the book. Flora’s wife Marsha, is the daughter of Snell. Initially, they were suspicious of the unsolicited contact from a stranger in a foreign country. “In January of 2021, Mike received an email from Randy,” Marsha explained. This, after already rejecting his friend request on Facebook. “Mike read the email and brought it out to me and read it,” she continued. “He said, ‘this guy found your dad’s dog tags in Belgium.’ The first thing I said is, ‘Okay, does he want money!?’”

The confusion, likely because Snell’s daughter already had two sets of his dog tags — the first and last issued. In fact, they didn’t even know he had been to Belgium, as his unit had no record there. But Michael recalled one of Snell’s stories from the years before he passed. “DeWayne and a number of his other buddies were assigned to go to an ammo dump — or depo, to pick up ammunition and food and supplies before they headed north into The Battle of the Bulge.”

Portrait of Edward DeWayne Snell (L), Mike and Marsha Flora (R) showing Randy Buelens Snell's...
Portrait of Edward DeWayne Snell (L), Mike and Marsha Flora (R) showing Randy Buelens Snell's military uniform(Daniel Beals)

“They picked up their supplies, and they had to hustle back pretty quick, because they were on the move, quick, north,” he added. “That’s where they lost their dog tags.” Over the past year, they communicated more with Buelens, eventually planning a visit in May. The Flora’s gave Buelens a tour of Northeast Indiana, taking him to Coney Island for lunch, and the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum. He also visited a 101-year-old veteran whose dog tag was only two numbers off from DeWayne, and visited Snell’s grave in North Manchester. “He would be amazed. He couldn’t believe it,” Marsha said. “He never thought of himself as a hero at all.”

“I think that it’s really neat that a young man takes interest in finding artifacts that can relate to families overseas, and in other countries like the U.S,” Michael told us. “Being able to connect with them closely and being able to bring some closure to the experiences that their ancestors had during World War II.”

“Finding a dog tag is one thing — it’s a beautiful relic, stainless steel, comes out of the ground almost like new,” Buelens said, “but it only gets really interesting, when you research the story behind the dog tag.” And though Buelens spent a few days in Fort Wayne, his time in America, had only just begun. Sunday, the Flora’s took him to Schnelker Park in New Haven, to meet a second family who would see their late patriarch’s dog tags for the first time. But his audience would be a little bigger.

Seventeen relatives of Donald Kiracofe greeted Buelens in the parking lot. Admittedly, he was a little nervous to see so many people there for him. But they warmly greeted him and began pulling out Kiracofe’s belongings from one of their cars: a uniform, photos, documents, and books. For the next hour, he listened to Kiracofe’s adult children share what they knew, asking questions which revealed the depth of his knowledge of Americans, World War II, and his country.

Within minutes, it was clear how important Kiracofe was to every family member. “My grandpa was a huge part of our lives,” granddaughter Kendra Goodwin said. She and her husband were in contact with Buelens, and after overcoming their skepticism on his story, helped facilitate their meeting. “We just hold family near and dear, and we just all wanted to see this.” They too, had Kiracofe’s early dog tags, and didn’t know he lost a set in Belgium. The late veteran inspired one of his other granddaughters, Ashley Showalter, to serve her country too. “The sentimental value of this and the entire story is just unbelievable,” she said. “The pieces and the moments that get to be passed on from generation to generation — they mean so much.”

Buelens presenting Donald Kiracofe's (R) family with his dog tags lost in Belgium (L)
Buelens presenting Donald Kiracofe's (R) family with his dog tags lost in Belgium (L)(Daniel Beals)

Soon, Buelens and both families would move on to a restaurant to share a meal together. But first, they all moved to a nearby cemetery, where for a short time, the Belgian returned Donald Kiracofe’s dog tags to his gravesite. Filled with emotion, Kiracofe’s children embraced him. “I feel like history sometimes gets lost,” Goodwin said. “Finding something like this has brought a whole new… you know — stuff that I didn’t know even existed. So, to kind of pull that back up and to learn about my grandfather and what he did.”

“It’s just wonderful, I love the United States,” Buelens told us. “I love coming here, and just meeting these families is just wonderful for me.” He added, “My ancestors lived through World War II, they went through German occupation, and saw the horrors from close by. People in Europe won’t forget our liberators.”

Buelens journey isn’t over yet. Earlier this week, he left for Houston, Texas to spend a few days with a living World War II veteran he befriended overseas. After that, he has two more dog tags to return to families in Biloxi, Mississippi and New Orleans, Louisiana. Families of Snell and Kiracofe allowed him to keep the newly discovered tags, which will go on display at an exhibit in his hometown. There, photos and bios of each veteran will accompany the relics, where their legacies will be shared with others, over 4,000 miles away from home. When Buelens return to Belgium, he plans to resume metal detecting, and also complete a book about his adventures within the next year.

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